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Manitoba History: Review: Bill Waiser, Portraits of an Era: The Aerial Photography of Howdy McPhail

by Jack McKinnon
Carman, Manitoba

Number 64, Fall 2010

The idea of photographing and marketing portraits of rural farmyards flourished at the end of the Second World War. Gasoline was cheap, numerous light aircraft were available and thousands of highly skilled pilots had just returned home from the war. Howdy McPhail was one of these pilots. He used his flight skills and his remarkable drive to become a successful and innovative entrepreneur.

These attractive portraits of almost sixty years ago freeze a fascinating view of farm life for posterity. For many prairie people, they capture a day in the lives of our grandparents and great grandparents. Descendent families and others will find that this collection of aerial images creates a profound sense of nostalgia for the family farm.

Speaking as someone who pioneered an aerial crop photo business in Carman, Manitoba in 1976 (Prairie Agri Photo Ltd.), I can appreciate how challenging it must have been to produce these aerial photographs. The images featured in Portraits of an Era are of balanced composition, sharp definition and skillful processing, which is especially remarkable given the vastly less sophisticated planes and cameras available at the time. It also speaks to McPhail’s skill: he succeeded in positioning the aircraft just right to create images that are both pleasing and powerful.

Despite the limits of the technology, in one regard McPhail had an advantage over today’s aerial photographer. The photographs show a notable absence of trees around several of the farmyards. The “Farmyard Shelterbelt Program” that now permits farmers to order tree seedlings at no cost from Indian Head, Saskatchewan was developed following the dry years of the 1930s. Because of it, farm locations today typically have rows of mature trees surrounding the yards, making it far more difficult to capture the images, especially if the houses are low, onestory buildings.

The black and white photographs created by McPhail and presented with commentary by Bill Waiser in this collection are remarkably stable and resistant to fading or deterioration. Unfortunately this is not so with the color film and prints taken during the four decades after 1960, which are far less stable, often fading within twenty years. One can only hope that current farmyard portraits, now taken in digital format, will have virtually unlimited longevity.

The recent loss of the small family farm has made these photos all the more valuable and worthy of appreciation. I have personally witnessed a profound change from the family farm to the corporate farm. Today’s corporate farms often manage a land base equivalent to that of ten to twenty family farms of an earlier time. For instance, in the vicinity of the farm on which I personally grew up in southern Manitoba, eight neighboring farmsteads have disappeared. In some cases, these family farm locations are marked by a collection of derelict buildings, while in other cases they have disappeared without a trace. Howard McPhail’s aerial images of towns and farmyard homesteads have indeed left us with a valuable historical legacy.

Page revised: 9 July 2016

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