Mattie Gunterman Collection: Background Information

About the Collection

The Vancouver Public Library is privileged to have a collection of photographs taken by Madeline (Mattie) Gunterman between 1890 and 1920. These photographs provide a rich contribution to the cultural heritage of the province of British Columbia, as well as a cornerstone upon which the Vancouver Public Library's Historical Photograph Collections was built.

The majority of Gunterman's photographs were taken around Beaton, in the Arrow Lakes District of British Columbia, but the collection also includes images of other parts of the Pacific Northwest. Most of the photographs were taken during the twenty years that Mattie, her husband Bill, and their son Henry were together as a family and depict the rich experiences that they shared with one another, as well as with friends who played significant roles in their lives.

View a selection of photographs from the Mattie Gunterman Collection in This Vancouver or use the Historical Photographs advanced search to find more photographs from this collection.

About the Photographs

There are almost three hundred images in the entire Ida Madeline Warner (Mattie) Gunterman Photograph Collection, most of which are now digitized and available online. Images in the collection exist primarily as glass plate negatives and black and white prints. Subjects include: pioneer and camp life in interior British Columbia; men in the Nettie-L Mine; results of hunting expeditions; women and children skating on frozen ponds; family picnics; masquerade parties; and humourous activities in the cookhouse.

Mattie Gunterman's photographs are raw and intense providing a rich, powerful resource to researchers who are seeking examples of early pioneer life in British Columbia. The collection lends itself well to a wide variety of audiences locally, nationally and internationally, including: film and television companies, architects and city planners, students, teachers, historians, librarians, and writers.

The Discovery

In the summer of 1961, Ron D'Altroy, former historical photograph curator at the Vancouver Public Library, drove into the Lardeau River Valley with two associates to conduct research into the ghost towns of British Columbia. Ron took a side trip to the deserted town of Camborne then drove on to a local bar at the Beaton Hotel. Following is a quote from Ron:

"I think I heard about Henry Gunterman the first time in the beer parlour, having a couple glasses of beer at Beaton, and somebody in there said, "Ahhhhh-boy, you guys should talk to old Henry Gunterman... his mother took a lot of old pictures on glass"...Well boy, my heart stopped beating right there. So we started to look for them... I went up a ladder, it was about sixty percent broken, up into a hole, into a loft, in the back, in the shed, and found this box of glass plates...refuse from the packrats had fallen and put a dome on it...great many of the plates were stuck together...And OHBOY! I took one look and I knew exactly what I had." (from: Flapjacks & Photographs: a History of Mattie Gunterman, Camp Cook and Photographer by Henri Robideau, p. 194)

Ron found what was left of Mattie's photograph collection buried under a rat's nest. With his mother gone, and the world of modernity closing in around him, Henry Gunterman felt that her photographs would be safer in the Vancouver Public Library than in his loft where they could become the booty of thieves. So he gave the entire collection of plates to Ron to bring back to safety in Vancouver to describe and eventually make available to the public.

The Library was extremely fortunate to acquire Mattie Gunterman's remaining glass plate negatives, a true diary of pioneering existence during the early days of the province, as well as a gift and legacy to the people of British Columbia.

Read the full story of Ron D'Altroy's discovery in Flapjacks & Photographs: The Life Story fo the Famous Camp Cook and Photographer, Mattie Gunterman by Henri Robideau.

Biography: Madeline (Mattie) Gunterman

Madeline (Mattie) Gunterman was born sometime during the spring of 1872 in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a riverfront town that became a major boat building centre for Mississippi River packet steamers. The official proof of Mattie's existence emerges in the 1880 United States census where she appears as eight year old "Ida A. Warner" living with her maternal grandmother.

Mattie is described by her friend Kathleen Goldsmith as "delicate" suggesting that she was often sick as a child but from her earliest days she exhibited an extremely strong sense of self-identity choosing to be known as Mattie as opposed to Ida or Madeline. The most convincing evidence of her sense of self appears through her photographs; she appears in more than half of them. In some she is alone, sitting astride her horse or standing with rifle in hand, and in others she is inconspicuously present within a group of people. She seems to have regarded herself more as a vital component of the life she photographed than as a photographic observer detached from real participation in the activities of the community.

Mattie became caught up in the Kodak craze early in life, learning about the photographic process from an uncle who had a studio in La Crosse. When, in the late 1880s, Mattie left her home town and headed west for the booming city of Seattle, she took her Bull's Eye, snapshot camera with her. In Seattle, where she found work as a hotel maid, Mattie met Emma Gunterman who introduced her to her brother Bill. Mattie and Bill soon married and spent the next forty-five years together. Henry, their son, was born in 1892.

Mattie developed trouble with her lungs due to the constant rain and dampness of Seattle so in the spring of 1897 she, Bill and Henry headed for the semi-arid climes of eastern Washington. It was during this trek to better health that Mattie took the first photographs attributed to her. With her Bull's Eye camera, commonly known as a box camera, she snapped pictures of friends, her family's campsites, trappers; prospectors; miners; packers; pioneer dreamers; and wilderness activities along backwoods trails.

Mattie and her family returned briefly to Seattle when news of the Klondike gold strike reached them because Bill's mother needed extra help running her hotel. Later in 1897, when Mattie suffered a relapse in her health, she contacted her cousin Hattie Needham in Thomson's Landing (later known as Beaton), British Columbia to determine if she and Bill could find work there instead. Fortunately, rich silver-lead deposits had been found in the area so there was plenty of work throughout the West Kootenay district and the family moved again. As they travelled, Bill worked in sawmills and Mattie took in laundry; they finally arrived in Thomson's Landing in June 1898 after walking more than six hundred miles.

By early 1898, Mattie's interest in photography expanded; she purchased a 4"x5" plate camera that offered ground glass focusing, and a multispeed shutter thereby allowing her to keep a more detailed photographic journal of her new life. Curiously, Mattie appears in many of her own photographs. She made this possible by using a long piece of rubber tubing which was attached to her camera's pneumatic shutter at one end with a rubber bulb at the other. Squeezing or stepping on the bulb released the shutter and made an exposure.

Mattie usually spent winter months developing her plates and making prints. She kept two albums: one for herself and one for Henry, a practice which she continued until he was a grown man. It is partly thanks to Henry's album that examples of Mattie's early work exist today. Mattie's own copies were destroyed in a fire when the Gunterman family home burned down in 1927.

Viewing and Searching the Collection

View a selection of photographs from the Mattie Gunterman Collection in This Vancouver or use the Historical Photographs advanced search to find more photographs from this collection.

Ordering Digital Reproductions

All photographs in the database are available for purchase, and digital reproductions can be ordered from the Special Collections Department at the Vancouver Public Library. Visit Historical Photograph Collections for more information and to access the online order form.