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Photographing Central Ontario from Above
Harry Oakman of Peterborough was among Canada’s most prolific postcard producers, selling over 200 million copies, featuring thousands of different images. He specialized in aerial photography, capturing striking views of tourist attractions, for a generation where many people preferred to buy postcards rather than develop their own pictures. For decades his postcards were economical and available everywhere. In hindsight, Harry created a priceless visual record of Ontario from the 1940s to the 1970s. For so many communities, a large proportion of the really interesting images of this period came from his studio.
A Creative Mind
Being an avid pilot and photographer, Harry designed his own built-in cameras, so he could fly and take photographs at the same time. His ingenuity and enterprise allowed him to have a very successful career doing what he loved, flying around Ontario, taking photographs from the air and selling thousands of copies of each one. He realized that most communities, tourist attractions and accommodations would buy postcards of their own location if offered the opportunity.
A Home Business
Harry Oakman lived in Peterborough, and operated his business out of his home for his entire career, with his wife Clare keeping the books, even when it had grown to be a photographic studio with national recognition. It was a very interesting home to visit! His photography business was always concentrated in south-central Ontario, but his work spans the province, and also includes images from other places that he frequented, including Florida and the Caribbean.
When Harry started out he was taking black and white photographs, because colour photography was still developing. A few of his early postcards were hand coloured, typically by local artists. Most were taken within flying distance of Peterborough. When he started there was not yet a public airport, so he founded the Peterborough Airport in 1959, in the process becoming one of the rare people to fight City Hall and win. Local pilots helped clear enough land to allow a 2000-ft airstrip. By 1970, the City realized its value and purchased what became the Peterborough Municipal Airport.
Capturing the Kawartha from Above
In the mid twentieth century, many visitors to the Kawarthas came to stay at camps and rental cottages. From one end to the other, the waterway was dotted with recreational businesses, most offering a “rustic,” back to nature experience. Cedar Villa, on Balsam Lake, just off highway 35 near Rosedale, was a very popular destination, equipped to serve 150 guests. It included a 24 room main lodge, magnificent dining room, 15 bungalows (2-3 bedrooms each), marine lodge, beach, and many colourful Adirondack chairs overlooking the water.
Aubrey Lyon’s garage (a Dodge DeSoto dealer pumping B/A gasoline that was located on the Fenelon Falls island) was one of the many businesses that had their own Oakman postcard. Because the business was located at the heart of the community, this postcard provides a great overview of what Fenelon Falls looked like before the wholesale recreation of the island initiated by Parks Canada in the late 1950s.
Sherwin’s Camp located near Roseneath was another early customer. This image captured not only the dock and accommodations, but also the unique appearance of Rice Lake from above. With the rolling hills in the background and its many islands, it is easy to see why this part of the Trent waterway has been loved by so many.
While flying over a lake, somewhere in Northern Ontario, Harry spotted a moose wading across the water. As he flew in to take a closer photograph, he started it, causing it to run towards shore. This bull moose in flight because Harry’s most famous image and was published internationally—as postcards, wall art and in major print media outlets. “The Monarch of the Canadian Wilds” became a quintessential image of Canadiana and made H.R. Oakman a nationally known photographer.
A Controversial Image
While he was photographing the Sleeping Giant Park on the north shore of Lake Superior (a striking peninsula, that actually looks like a sleeping giant and is the subject of much local lore), it struck Harry that he should make a postcard of a Sleeping Giant. He asked Don Jacobs, chief at Curve Lake, if he would pose on lying on a table in his basement studio, which was then superimposed on a photograph of nearby island in Lake Superior, and hand tinted. The image sold extremely well, but outraged a lot of people from Fort William (as part of Thunder Bay was then called). Critics felt that it was sacrilege, “look what he did” with the Sleeping Giant.
Curve Lake Pow Wow
Harry’s relationship with the Don Jacobs and the community at Curve Lake gave him many opportunities to photograph their events, while at the same time, feeding an international fascination with native peoples. This postcard of the Curve Lake Pow Wow, taken in the late 1960s, was sent all over the world—this particular copy was kept for decades by a German family.
Peterborough Lift Locks
The Peterborough Lift Locks were such a striking landmark that Harry would remark, “you can’t fail by taking a picture of the Lift Locks.” Over his career he captured it from many vantages, from below and above. This image from the 1960s, places it in the context of the surrounding countryside.
George Street, Peterborough
Among Harry’s many postcards of his home city was this late 1960s image of George Street. The busy street shows Woolworth’s popular five-and-dime store, city buses, and many main street businesses. He also photographed the Beer Store, as part of his commission to capture each of their Ontario locations. The popularity of these stores meant that many people came to know Harry as the photographer of Brewer’s Retail.
Kent Street, Lindsay
Harry also captured Lindsay’s Kent Street in the 1960s, providing a glimpse of its many businesses.
Highway 35, Minden
This autumn image of Minden is barely clearing the tree-tops, and shows the beautiful hills of the surrounding countryside and local businesses.
Gooderham in the 1960s showing the Irondale River and Forests in the background.
The Village of Kinmount showing the Austin sawmill in the foreground, dam and arched bridge over the Burnt River.
Beaverton with Lake Simcoe in the background.
Rosedale showing the swing bridge open over the Trent-Severn Waterway and a series of boats motoring into Balsam Lake. Harry returned to capture many villages repeatedly from the air, and his photographs document how the communities changed over the years.
At the time that this photograph was taken in the mid 1960s, Serpent Mounds was a popular campground, operated by Ontario Parks, on a lease with the Hiawatha First Nation. It is a significant archaeological site of the Hopewell People, who lived there about 2000 years ago. In 1982 it became a national historic site, and was later operated privately as a park by the Hiawatha First Nation, closing in 2009.
St. Peter’s on the Rock
This Church on Stony Lake offers the usual experience of attending Sunday Service in the middle of beautiful Stony Lake. Accessible only by boat, and only in summer, congregants travel by motor, sail, row boats and canoes to worship. Opened as an Anglican Church in 1914, it has since become non-denominational and attracts many tourists.
A Beautiful Scene
H.R. Oakman had a knack for capturing what people loved about the Kawarthas. His prolific career produced a remarkable body of work, thousands of images, that show the region at its best, which was purchased by MapArt. His “Beautiful Scene from the Kawartha Lakes Vacation Area” shows a colourful island cottage, spanning two islands, on a calm lake with forests in the background—just the kind of summer getaway that made the region a tourist destination.
A Visit with Harry
In 1985 Artspace, Peterborough hosted Harry Oakman, Flying Artist an exhibition featuring highlights of Harry’s photographic career. Hank Fisher (a.k.a. Washboard Hank) produced a promotional televised interview with Harry. The video, available on both YouTube and Vimeo, provides an interesting glimpse of both the famous characters from the local arts scene. We hope you enjoy a visit with Harry Oakman, Flying Artist.