Tonquin Valley, Jasper National Park, Alberta
I am not known as a nature photographer, but nature has always played an important part of my work. In my 70 plus professional years, I have been called a documentary, industrial, mining, aerial, and travel industry photographer. In the last stage of my career, I am into fine-art photography.
I was born in Regina in 1921, prior to the Great Depression, but still a time of cautious living. I can recall my mother having a little notebook where she itemized every penny spent, like postage to Aunt Hazel 2 cents. Another recollection from those early days was at ages 10 and 12 when I played hookey from school to attend exciting International Air Shows at Regina Airport. When the truant officer called the house, my dear Mother told him that she took me to be exhilarated and asked why the whole school wasn’t taken out to see the shows. I remember to this day, the large transport planes and the many sports aircraft. Some of this apparently stayed in my veins.
In 1934, my family moved to Winnipeg. My Father, a travelling salesman, was transferred there by his company. I am often asked how, and when, I took up photography. The answer is that my Winnipeg high school sent me to London England in 1937, as their representative to the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. I was fifteen. I bought a Voigtländer Bessa camera to record the trip, and when I returned to school, I used enlarged prints of the photographs to give lectures. I was forever hooked on photography.
Having pedaled a bicycle across Northern Ireland after my trip to England the previous year, I felt restless between summer jobs. To kill time a school chum and I pedaled our bicycles from Winnipeg five hundred and fifteen miles down to Minneapolis/ St. Paul. A couple weeks later we almost ruined our bicycles, pedaling over the Trans-Canada highway, that was mostly gravel from Winnipeg to Kenora. We were sternly reprimanded by the police for descending a hill too fast (about 40 mph) at West Hawk Lake. The policeman told us, if we had hit a rock we would have gone flying. Bicycle-camping trips didn’t induce any memorable photos. However, after studying Atget and Cartier Bresson images in magazines, the bicycle came in very handy for seeking out street scenes around Winnipeg.
After completing high school, and a year at Winnipeg United College, I was given a four and an eight month apprenticeship in two Winnipeg engraving companys’ photographic studios, working with 8 x 10 view cameras. I quickly learned that I wasn’t cut out to be involved with repetitive subjects. I connected with two great mentors, Nick Morrant, a staff photographer with the C.P.R., and Harry Rowed, a freelancer with the C.N.R. They photographed on location and covered something a little different everyday. I wanted to emanate their type of work.
WWII had started. The Navy turned me down for “health reasons”. I was given a full-time job, 24/7, at the Winnipeg Tribune, where the edict was, “If you don’t get the shot the editor requested, don’t bother to return to the paper - save yourself the embarrassment”.
Iceberg near Nunavut
I then spent five years (1945-1950), with the Stills Division of the National Film Board in Ottawa. It was everything a young photographer could have wished for. While I was at the N.F.B. I never got around to setting up residence in Ottawa. With Winnipeg as my home base, I kept suggesting assignments to head office in an attempt to stay on the road and live on an expense account. I made several trips to New York City, over a two-year period as Canada’s designated photographer to the United Nations at Lake Success. A limo would take me at the end of the day to the Associated Press offices at Rockefeller Center to develop my film. Prints were made and distributed by wire-photo, and by mail each night. I would have dinner at 10 o’clock, at a favourite Sixth Avenue restaurant.
Arctic hares (Lepus arcticus) near Nunavut
A winter and a summer trip to the Canadian High Arctic in 1946 were the highlight of my tenure at N.F.B., and a favourite of my entire career. I feel so lucky, to have visited and photographed the Inuit as they had lived for centuries, before their way of life dramatically changed in the early 1950’s.
I resigned from N.F.B. on May 1, 1950 (exactly five years from the day I started). My first endeavour was to borrow money to buy an airplane. I still recalled how dramatic many things looked when viewed from a high perspective on a brief autogiro ride in England. I had been taking flying lessons in Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Lethbridge flying clubs, plus a seaplane endorsement at Weaverly, N.S. I purchased my first plane, a used four-place Piper Clipper, and had the door modified to open in flight for aerial views. The poor little plane had a top speed of 105 mph. With a skilled pilot assistant, I managed to make short time exposures at night when we stalled out momentarily at zero air speed. This technique resulted in a 12-page spread “The U.S. After Dark”, in Time magazine in 1954. The photo-editor told me that the forty-six Life staff photographers claimed it was an assignment that “could not be done”. It was the largest feature story they ever printed, before or since. For this, and three other major assignments for Time in the early 50’s, I was commended in three Publishers’ Letters in the front of the magazine. Another prestigious assignment during that period was the American Airlines large twelve-sheet wall calendar.
Trilliums in Ontario
Having sold my Piper in 1956, I leased a Cessna 180 for five years. Where as the Piper doors slid open on rails, I had the Cessna’s right door modified to hook up under the wing for aerial photographs. I spent about half my time on industrial photo assignments, and the other half making stock shots across Canada. A substantial number of my photographs including a few large (30 foot) blowups were featured in four pavilions - Western Canada, Ontario, Quebec, and the principal Canada Pavilion at the 1967 Montreal World’s Fair.
When I gave up the Cessna in the mid 1960s, I designed and had the noted bus-building firm of Prevost in Quebec build a travelling home/office/darkroom highway coach. It was wonderful having all my equipment right at hand and although no processing was carried out on the road, it was great having the ability to readily reload film holders. A hydraulically operated, twenty-five foot ladder mounted on the roof provided wonderful opportunities for high-angle shots. Overnight driving across the Prairies, with the moon lighting up the harvest fields, was fantastic. It is something few people ever get to see. During its’ ten-year tenure, and with a Jeep in tow for local and side trips, we visited every province several times, and once to the Yukon and Alaska. A highlight visit was to New York City where we attended plays on Broadway and parked across the street for a drink during intermission. The coach was indeed a luxury – but I believe it paid off when it was sold at two thirds of what it cost to build.
George Hunter at the top of the coach ladder
I enjoyed visiting Canadian subsidiaries’ plants, and engineering jobs in every part of the world. Photographing industry, with mining a specialty, kept me busy from the 50s through the 90s, when a loud cry was heard about industries, and open-pit mines, desecrating the environment. Assignments to photograph industries ceased almost over night. I then turned to travel, publicity and advertising photography, which gave me a tremendous chance to see the world.
Having visited and made photographs in well over 100 countries, I often get asked which country I liked best? If I said all of them it would be facetious. If forced to select, I would say Afghanistan. When asked what encouraged me to go there, I mention that I had seen a model of the 175 foot Bamiyan Buddha at a World Exposition in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1958, and made my mind up that I must see it one day. Almost twenty years later I came across the U.S.A. office of Ariana Afghanistan Airways in New York, where I negotiated transportation to Kabul. Why did I like Afghanistan? Well, it was like walking back a hundred years in time. The air, without heavy industries, was likely the purest I’ve ever breathed. Another reason - no tourists! That was 1975. I liked being there so much, I returned in 1977 and again in 1979, when I was lucky to catch the last flight out of Kabul, the day the Russians entered the country.
My long-standing foreign No. 1 travel rule is “never drive or be driven on a road at night in a developing country.” This rule was broken when I lingered too long in making a sunset shot. I now have a second travel rule, and that is “never accept a driver and a guide” - accept only a driver/guide, as with two sitting up front the passengers are ignored. This almost cost us our lives when the driver missed a sharp curve on the mountain road, and completely out of control the Land Rover careened down the embankment, miraculously missing elephant size boulders. We spent the next couple of hours in getting back up onto the road. One lesson reinforced and a new one learned. It isn’t worth risking your life for a sunset. And, the shot didn’t turn out all-that well!
Nova Scotia orchard
There have been so many highlights over the decades. When it gets cold outside, I often wonder how I ever managed to sleep in a tent, in -40F weather at the North Pole? I was on an assignment for De Havilland of Canada to photograph their Dash 8 Aircraft landing on the Pole during the 1979 Lomonosov Expedition. That was the time when Prime Minister Trudeau swam under the ice. When I returned home, I was proud to see on TV news, my Canadian Flag still flying on the 16 foot 2x4 inch flagpole I had erected right on the North Pole.
Enroute home from assignments in Africa in the 1960s, I stopped over for a brief look-around in Cairo. Arriving early in the evening, but too late for shooting pictures I took a lengthy stroll around town, passing dozens of shops with each proprietor at doorway, beckoning passersby to “step in for a tea with us – no pressure to buy”. Weary and ready to retrace my steps back to the hotel I took up one of the shopkeeper’s invite and spent half an hour conversing with the four or five men huddled around. Upon making ready to leave, one chap asked if he could accompany me and I thanked him and said I was OK to find my way back by myself. He explained that he had to visit my hotel, The Shepheard, himself. I didn’t worry, as I recall, and arriving back and thanking him, he pulled out his pocket notebook, flipped some pages, and said, “There’s a Canadian coming in tonight, that I have to meet. His name is George Hunter.” Apparently a short time after I left home on this trip, my lady Patricia’s boss returned from a tour of Egypt and upon telling him about my trip, he wrote this chap who was a Dragoman (official tour guide) in training. I wonder what divine force had me stop in at that particular shop. Incidentally, one of the photographs I made featuring a horse and rider galloping in front of the Pyramids was selected by the A.G.O. for their permanent photography print collection. Ms. Maia Sutnik, curator of photography, told me it is her favorite image of the fifty-six of my prints they are holding.
While photography provided interesting activity every day, there were days when it was really too exciting. Flying my own plane for ten years, I had a few scary encounters but none life threatening. From my list of twenty death–defying encounters, I’ll mention only a few: There was the flight in the early seventies, when returning from Noranda in a plane chartered by a mining company, the pilot started screaming “May Day, May Day, May Day,” at which point both engines quit. We were approaching Toronto, but still about twenty-thirty miles back. The pilot did a miraculous ‘gimli type’ glide and we made it to the first foot of the runway at Pearson. How about this one: on assignment for Time photographing Expo pavilions, and picking up a newspaper the next morning with headlines “Pilot and engineer dead in helicopter crash” this happened an hour after I stepped out of the helicopter. Another – just as scary - on completion of photographing Labrador Falls for Fortune magazine, I ran to catch an airline flight to Montreal; on my next trip to the area, the P.R. chap asked if I had heard what happened to the Alouette helicopter I had been using. I was told, that as my airline plane was taxing out to the runway, the helicopter, being moved to a spot for refueling, blew up with the pilot shooting through the Plexiglas and breaking both legs. I shudder when I think of the time when Patricia and I were chased out of Algeria by irate villagers armed with guns and shovels, they were annoyed when I stepped out of the car with my camera. Maybe most scary of all, was when I was photographing over Edmonton in an Aeronca aircraft with the door removed, I found myself suddenly dangling in the struts. The pilot had jammed the stick hard to the left, to miss a bird heading for the windshield, and the inertia had ejected me right out the door. The camera had apparently hit the buckle, unlocking the seat belt. Not to worry I haven’t made a photo-flight since that day without using two safety belts.
Lupines in Prince Edward Island
Photography has been good to me, having allowed travel back and fourth across the country countless times. I used to feel as much at home in Vancouver and Halifax as I did in Winnipeg, Ottawa or Toronto. Now in Mississauga. I am reviewing my work, and pulling up prints made as long ago as the late 1930s, I am living my life over again. I am thankful that I kept all the extras and prints that I didn’t get around to exhibiting. I am currently busy selling and making donations to national art galleries and museums across Canada. Over seventy such venues have at least two of my prints in their permanent photographic collections.
Appointed to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1977, George has been widely published across Canada, the USA, Europe and Japan, including four major photo spreads for TIME magazine for which he was acclaimed in three Publisher's Letters.
Today, George Hunter, an active octogenarian, still travels widely and is currently producing archival fine art prints from his original black and white negatives.
E-mail address: email@example.comWeb Site: georgehunterphotography.com