ROONEY, Frances

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Working Light: The Wandering Life of Photographer Edith S. Watson

Working Light: The Wandering Life of Photographer Edith S. Watson (Carleton University Press $35.95)

A Black and white photograph in a 1916 issue of The Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science, Art and Literature started Frances Rooney on a twenty year quest in 1977. Unlike most photographs of the time, the picture of a woman seated at a floor loom bore a credit. Equally rare at the time, the photographer, Edith S. Watson, was female.

Curious, Rooney combed through magazines and archives, compiling a file of photocopied Watson images which mainly documented the lives of rural people, frequently women, at work across Canada from the 1890s to the 1930s. Unable to trace the woman behind the lens, Rooney queried American historians for six months without success -- until one day in 1979 a letter arrived from the Smithsonian. An historian there had discovered Watson listed in a 1954 edition of Who Was Who.

"It was enough," Rooney recalls. She was able to trace a sole living relative, Lois Watson, the widow of Edith's cousin, who had carefully stored Watson's photographs, paintings, sketches and diaries after her death in 1943. An extra barn on her Connecticut farm was filled with Watson's belongings.

"I could hardly believe how much there was," says Rooney. "I had thought that nothing could be worse than the blind search; I was wrong. Knowing there was so much to work with, and therefore so much to lose, was far worse."

Rooney spent the next 15 years studying the material and researching Watson's life. Working Light: The Wandering Life of Photographer Edith S. Watson (Carleton University Press $35.95) records the life and work of an American woman who made her living as a freelance photographer.

Her partner of 32 years, Bermudian journalist Victoria ('Queenie') Hayward, was her soul mate and her work mate. Based in Connecticut and Martha's Vineyard, the couple spent several months of each year travelling in Canada. From the fishing communities of Newfoundland, to the prairies and the West Coast, Watson shot virtually every nook and cranny of Canada. A section of Working Light profiles the Doukhobors and another section is devoted to her travels in B.C.

As a team, Hayward and Watson were an editor's dream; one wrote the article, the other took the pictures. Hayward coined the phrase 'Canadian mosaic' in their book Romantic Canada published in 1922 by Macmillan.

Watson came from a talented and eclectic family; her artist sister Amelia illustrated a limited edition of Thoreau's Cape Cod, published in 1894 by Houghton Mifflin. Her father was one of the two founders of the Hartford Times.

Before Edith's travelling years, along with her cousins, she operated a small publishing business out of the family's west Hartford estate. Among the guests were Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and suffragette Katherine Houghton Hepburn (mother of the famous actor).

[BCBW 1997]