My Grandmother, the Photographer

grandma's early for the parade

Grandma was what they called “a character.” If you’re old enough to remember Tugboat Annie or Ma Kettle she could have been type-cast in either of those roles. I’ve written about my mother before so this Mother’s Day I’d like to honour my other mother.

She ran a boarding house in downtown east Calgary during the war years up until the end of the fifties. She told us it used to be the Northwest Mounted Police officer’s quarters before that. But it’s hard to know for sure. She was an honest woman, but facts underwent some sort of redistribution once they went through the shuffling process in her brain. Sometimes she just grabbed a date from one pile, a place from another and a name from a third and wound them all up in a story that we fondly referred to as “Grandma’s version.”

She could read if she was allowed to point to the words and move her lips, but bits of the information she gleaned that way ended up in scattered fact piles that just added colour to her already improvised histories. She said the one room school burned down before she was in third grade and the neighbours who helped build the first one never got around to help build a second so that’s all the learnin’ she got. Since the home she grew up in was thirty miles from the nearest road, that story was plausible.

Everyone all the way downtown knew her, including the shopkeepers, the bus drivers, the preachers at the Prophetic Bible Institute and the folks at city hall. She may not have been able to read books well, but she could read people and she was the ultimate extrovert and filled the house with all manner of friends, from the chief of police to the homeless guy with a three-legged dog. As a teen I remember her carrying around a camera with her and setting off a flash at some of the most inopportune times. (Maybe that’s where I got the habit.)

When my father had to reduce his worldly goods to fit into a room at the lodge I decided to put his photos on a digital frame. Since his memory is failing he asked me to label them. That’s when I found my grandmother’s photo albums with page after page of unidentifiable torsos. They all looked like healthy torsos but my grandmother had her own concept of photographic composition. She knew who they were. They make me smile. May I present some of her work?



Creative use of negative space

grandma's drapes


Portrait of Grandma’s favourite TV evangelist, Rex Humbard




Grandma truly perfected the candid reluctant pose




Colour photography thrilled her, especially when she chose the outfits.


Dwayne, Melody, Wade Leah, Mervin

Happy Irthday Ladies”. A cake and a record of someone’s efforts to attach mauve lace to a green tablecloth. Perhaps it had ecological significance.



I can just hear her saying, “Here, Daddy. Hold my purse while I take a picture of you.”


grandpa's purse


Romantic anniversary shoots were her specialty.


grandma'sanniversary portait


Grandma taught her family her photographic techniques so they could pinch-hit in an emergency. This is Grandma and Grandpa’s 50th anniversary.



Choosing the right setting communicates so much, and what could be more appropriate for a family from the dust bowl than a Saskatchewan sandstorm.

Dorsey Family

The truth is, she may have embarrassed me half to death, but I adored my grandmother. Since my own mother was often ill or working she was my main caretaker. She was a camp counselor at 81 years old and her cabin of girls loved her because she knew how to have fun -and she never read the rules.

She the one with the biggest smile.

The Donaldson Family



7 thoughts on “My Grandmother, the Photographer

  1. I love this! When I would visit my grandma in the nursing home, she’d bring out her old albums and we’d go through them. Nothing was in order and she’d always start out with, “you wouldn’t be interested in this,” but then she’d tell me all about them. My favourites were her and her brothers, lined up shoulder to shoulder with the bald prairie for a background.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.