Ida Madeline Warner was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin in the spring of 1872. Virtually nothing is known about her parents and family, but it is assumed she was an orphan as she is listed in the U.S. Census of 1880 as residing with her maternal grandmother. Despite being a sickly child, Miss Warner was extremely strong willed, and by adolescence she insisted upon being called “Mattie.” Her uncle operated a photographic studio in La Crosse, and it is believed this is where she became introduced to photography. Her first camera was a Kodak Brownie Bullseye box camera with roll film.
By age 16, Miss Warner was living and working as a hotel maid in Seattle, Washington, and took her beloved Bullseye camera wherever she went. While there, she was introduced to William Gunterman, who she soon married, and with whom she would have a son, Henry, born in 1892. The rainy Seattle climate was not compatible with Mrs. Gunterman’s frail health, and she contracted tuberculosis. After a brief relocation in eastern Washington, the Guntermans decided to visit Mattie’s cousin, Hattie Needham, who lived in the Canadian village of Thomson’s Landing (later called Beaton), British Columbia. Mrs. Gunterman’s health improved considerably, and the family permanently settled in the region. She was perennially fascinated by the landscape and the people, and her beloved Bullseye snapshot camera was never far away.
Within a few years, Mrs. Gunterman exchanged her weary Bullseye for a 4x5” plate camera fitted with a multi-speed shutter and ground glass for sharper focus. While employed as a cook at a local mining camp, Mrs. Gunterman photographed the daily life of the miners and their families. Winters were spent developing plates and making prints for the photographic journals she maintained for herself and her young son. Although she considered herself little more than an amateur photographer or at the most a regional documentarian, Mrs. Gunterman’s views of Canadian pioneer life reflect her growth as a serious photographer. Despite her fragile health, she possessed the strength to carry her camera and the required heavy equipment to remote locales. She learned how to expertly manipulate shadow and light to achieve her desired effect, and effectively contrasted the rustic landscape with its Victorian inhabitants. Not content to be merely an observer, Mrs. Gunterman took some of the first ‘selfies,’ with the assistance of a foot-controlled rubber ball and tube release. Sadly, however, Mattie’s personal prints were destroyed in a house fire in 1927. Fortunately, the plates and prints Mrs. Gunterman produced for her son were stored elsewhere. She died in 1945 at the age of 73, unaware of the treasures she left behind in Canada’s gold country.
Mattie Gunterman’s photographic legacy was discovered in the unlikeliest of places. In 1961, Ron D’Altroy, one-time historical curator at the Vancouver Public Library, was researching British Columbia ghost towns when he stopped for a beer at the Beaton Hotel tavern. While there, one of the locals told him about Henry Gunterman’s mother, who “took a lot of old pictures on glass.” Intrigued, Mr. D’Altroy searched for them diligently, finally uncovering nearly 300 plates in a rat-infested loft. Henry Gunterman generously donated them to the Vancouver Public Library, where they comprise the Ida Madeline Warner (Mattie) Gunterman collection. The plates are currently being digitized so they may be accessed online.
2018 The B.C. Landscape Through the Eyes of Emily Carr, Mattie Gunterman and Ian Thom by John Mackie (URL: https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/the-b-c-landscape-through-the-eyes-of-emily-carr-mattie-gunterman-and-ian-thom).
1995 Flapjacks & Photographs: The Life Story of the Famous Camp Cook and Photographer Mattie Gunterman by Henri Robideau (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: Polestar Book Publishers), p. 195.
2007 Framing Identity: Social Practices of Photography in Canada (1880-1920) by Susan Close (Winnipeg, Canada: Arbeiter Ring Publishing), pp. 21, 23, 26.
2019 Madeline Gunterman Collection: Background Information (URL: https://thisvancouver.vpl.ca/madelinegunterman_collection_background_info).
2006 The Photographic Historical Society of Canada – Rediscovery: Canadian Women Photographers 1841 – 1941 (URL: http://www.phsc.ca/Laura-Jones.html).
Working People: A History of Labour in BC (URL: https://teachbcdb.bctf.ca › download › filename=mattie-gunterman).
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