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Mary Spencer

Today, using images to document our lives is common practice. With the click of a button or tap of a screen we are easily able to register everyday moments and milestones alike, many of us compiling thousands of photos throughout our life times. This is, of course, a relatively new practice, but the late 1800s and early 1900s was a time when photography was something else entirely.

Margaret Spencer was born in Ontario in October of 1857, one of several children. At age 20, she would study to become a teacher, taking various positions within the province and, during which time, develop and explore her artistic nature, dabbling in oil painting and also photography. She would eventually move west, to Kamloops, B.C. with her mother and sister, Isobel. 

She would open her own studio in town--Isobel, an avid gardener, ran a greenhouse next door--quickly becoming known for her portrait work and documentation of land and cityscapes. She photographed children sitting atop wooden chairs, Victorian gentlemen in high-top hats and the rolling hills of the Interior. Her operation was among the best in British Columbia and was even well thought of throughout the rest of the country. But arguably, her most remembered pieces were of a much more infamous nature. 

In 1906, famed train robber and career criminal, Bill Miner--considered to have coined that classic command, “Hands up!”--along with his associates, Tom “Shorty” Dunn and Louis Colquhoun, would be apprehended just outside of Kamloops at Douglas Lake. The men were surrounded while eating lunch and after a denial of identity and brief shootout, the threesome were arrested for the recent train heist in nearby Monte Creek. Among the circus of processing the bandits and the trial that followed--in which a bottle of kidney pills proved to be the smoking gun--was one Mary Spencer.

Spencer, often described as mild-mannered and soft-spoken, was hired by the Vancouver Daily Province as a photojournalist--a niche profession which was still being carved out--to cover the unfolding story. As Kamloops’ only photographer, she would document the courtroom proceedings, but perhaps most iconically, was responsible for the posse’s mugshots. 

While modern mugshots often feature tight framing of their subjects and an austere, styleless style, Mary Spencer’s booking photos are a testament not only to the times, but to her artistry. The images feature the bandits in hats and bandanas and heavy coats, mustachioed and goateed. In some they are standing, in others, sitting, but each photo evokes a real sense of the men, the era, the place. They seem to embody the Canadian wild west; archetypes of grit and lawlessness.

The aftermath of the drama saw rumours of a romance between Spencer and Miner and while the idea of an affair between the photographer and the outlaw was alluring, it was merely gossip. Due to the time, this story may have been borne out of a disregard for Spencer’s professionalism, as evidenced in her work going uncredited in the newspaper. Still, it didn’t stop the 1982 semi-biographical film, The Grey Fox, from depicting a tryst between Miner and the movie’s photographer character. 

In the years following, she would sell her business in Kamloops and, in 1909, move to Summerland with her mother and sister. Mary and Isobel would build a stately house there and run an orchard. Her sister was completely in her element, tending to the trees and plants, but Mary’s time in the Okanagan saw a departure from her previous work. Though she did dabble in photography, she couldn’t quite create what she had in Kamloops and spent most of her time painting fine china in her studio.

A neighbour in Summerland would say that Spencer lived the kind of life she wanted. And for a woman of the era--for someone of any era really--her accomplishments are impressive and suggest an individual guided by artistry, adventure and, perhaps, a touch of happenstance. A business-owner, an orchardist, an early photojournalist, a documenter of thieving bandits and townspeople--her life was certainly one worth remembering. Ironically, few photos exist of Spencer, herself, but the images she captured from behind the camera play a significant part in the story of British Columbia.


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