Manitoba History: Through a Rose Coloured Lens: The Agricultural Photographs of Cyril Jessop
by Elizabeth Blight
In 1916 the Department of Agriculture commissioned Cyril Jessop, a 35 year old Gladstone, Manitoba photographer, to take a series of photographs depicting rural life in Manitoba. Two hundred and twenty four of these photographs and eighty-one original glass negatives are today in the collection of the Provincial Archives of Manitoba. Of exceptional quality, these photographs have been extensively used by researchers since 1960 when they were transferred to the Archives by the Department of Agriculture. Little attention, however, has been paid to the context in which these photographs were created. Little thought has been given to why the photographs were created or to how accurately they depicted the realities of life experienced by the majority of residents of rural Manitoba?
At a time when the Department of Agriculture was paying Winnipeg photographers well under $100.00 a year to undertake work for them, the Department paid Jessop, a rural photographer, the extraordinary amount of $1,000.00 for this particular project.  Unfortunately, few of the Department’s records from this period have survived. There is, therefore, no record of the background to this project, no discussion of its intended purpose, no rationalization for the choice of Jessop, and no knowledge of the actual use of the photographs. Yet considerable effort was taken over this project as the series of photographs cover a full year, from ice cutting in the winter to harvesting in the autumn. A great deal, however, can be pieced together from the Annual Report of the Department for 1916.
By 1916 Europe had been suffering the devastating effects of war for over a year. The Manitoba Government found that it had lost its traditional recruiting ground for new immigrants. Louis Kon, Superintendent for the Immigration and Colonization Branch in The Department of Agriculture wrote in his section of the Annual Report “... [that] the United States [is] practically the only field from which immigration can be actively solicited and expected at the present time.”  Kon, however, warned that Manitoba was almost unknown in the American market. “The idea prevails popularly that the ‘Canadian West’, or the so called ‘Last Best West’ begins at the western boundary of our Province.”  Kon reported that the Branch had worked very hard during the reporting period to raise the profile of Manitoba to meet that of the other Prairie Provinces and had sought “to bring to the attention of American and Eastern Canadian soil tillers the opportunity and advantages Manitoba has to offer to an experienced, industrious farmer possessing some capital.”  It is evident from Kon’s report that substantial attempts were made to attract the “ambitious husbandman looking for a place where lands are cheap and productive, transportation facilities plentiful, markets good and near, social conditions established and congenial, education modern, and government progressive.”  Exhibits were held at several county fairs in the United States and an advertising campaign was undertaken in agricultural and county newspapers.  It would seem logical that the one strong attraction which might be used to tempt this already experienced and settled farmer to Manitoba was the possibility of a better life for his family. How better to illustrate the potential for improvement in lifestyle to prospective immigrants than by having photographs taken of actual farming conditions in the Province. We can assume, therefore, that it is likely that Jessop was hired by the Department to take a series of photographs suitable for use in this American market.
Along with the photographs when they were transferred to the Archives was a scribbler in which someone (it is not clear whether it was Jessop himself, or a Departmental employee) had written captions to accompany the photographs. The two together provide a clear indication of the lifestyle which the Department wished to promote south of the border.
The photographs cover a broad expanse of the Province, from the established farms from south of Morden to north of Minnedosa and to the more recent establishments in the highly promoted Swan Valley area. The greatest percentage, understandably, come from the region which Jessop probably knew the bestthe area surrounding his home at Gladstone.
As one might expect from a project promoting agriculture, there are numerous shots of fertile fields and verdant crops, healthy cattle and easy routes to market. It is Jessop’s depiction of lifestyle, however, which sets his collection apart. Home and family are of the utmost importance. The house is of equal status as the stable. Jessop photographed not only the small but comfortable houses of new settlers which are always credited as being easily attainable, but also the more substantial residences of long time residents. Vegetables and fruit are shown to grow in great abundance. (On Mr. Blackmore’s farm at Golden Stream one pea vine alone produced 17½ pounds of peas.) 
The isolation of farm life was said to be lessened by the advent of the telephone and the automobile. Dry easily travelled roads are, therefore, shown. Many farms have an automobile parked in the yard. Closer examination, however, shows that in many of the images it is the same vehicle. The severity of the prairie winters is glossed over by including only three extremely attractive views of hoar frost covered trees. Early spring shots emphasize how well the livestock manage to thrive out in the open.
The advantages of farm life on the family appear again and again in the photographs and the captions. While the presence of modern health and education facilities are noted, it is the life in the rural areas itself which is to produce the healthy and happy children who learn responsibility by under-taking farm chores. Children appear over and over again in the Collection, playing with the animals, helping to herd the cattle, growing their own gardens and learning agricultural skills through the Government sponsored Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs. These photographs give the Collection its particular charm and are the ones most often used. While enjoying their charm we should never lose sight of the fact that these photographs were created essentially as Government propaganda. Unfortunately we are never likely to know how many American settlers ended up in Manitoba at least in part because of them.
7. Archives of Manitoba. C33 box 1; Jessop scribbler entry 87, photograph 104.
Page revised: 15 July 2012