Portraits of acclaimed Saskatchewan photographer Thelma Pepper reveal untold stories

Thelma Pepper started with a question.

When the photographer set up a photo in a remote field off Highway 41, in a private room at the Sherbrooke Community Center or across from a kitchen table, it was a conversation.

“She had this uncanny ability to ask just the right question in the right way,” her son Gordon Pepper said.

Pepper began her career at age 60 and passed away last December at age 100.

During that period, she told the stories of rural women, the elderly and newcomers with the respect, dignity and resilience they deserved.

A year after her death, Pepper’s artwork is as woven into Saskatchewan’s fabric as the lives she captured on black-and-white film.

She found that love for lives captured in pictures as a girl, whirling over negatives in her father’s darkroom — actually a bathroom — in Kingston, Nova Scotia, according to Amy Jo Ehman’s biography Thelma: A Life in Pictures.

The joy that Lester Stevens, an avid amateur photographer, had in developing the photos was infectious enough to show in his daughter decades later.

Thelma Pepper in a darkroom in her home community of Kingston, Nova Scotia. (Submitted by Amy Jo Ehman)

Pepper was studying biology at Acadia University when war broke out in 1939.

Pepper’s father quickly befriended a mob of aviators stationed nearby and interested in photography, prompting him to build an elaborate darkroom in the basement.

Photography an obsession for later in life

Her father bought something special from the men who were preparing for the Second World War: a 35 millimeter pre-war German-made Weltini, her first camera.

After graduation, a former professor offered Pepper a job as a research assistant and science master’s student at McGill.

Montreal had its ups and downs. Here she met her husband, Jim Pepper, who was studying at university.

It was also where a thief stole her camera from a chest of drawers and robbed her of a creative outlet shortly after she moved in, Ehman writes.

At the time, the couple got married and Jim took a job in Guelph. Pepper gave birth to their firstborn, Bobby, in 1946.

The family moved again when Jim was offered a job at the University of Saskatchewan. After they moved, Pepper was offered an offer to lecture about her previous scientific research in college, but she declined. Three more children—Phyllis, Ron, and Gordon—followed.

Gordon remembers his mother as a devoted parent who cared about her children’s best interests in the world. There was even a dark room in the house, but he doesn’t remember her revealing her artistic talents.

“I didn’t think she would have actually done what she did,” he said.

Thelma Pepper’s photo, “Anna in Her Kitchen, 1989.” (Submitted by Amy Jo Ehman)

In 1979, her youngest left home and Pepper found herself with no purpose left as her children began to pursue independent lives.

“I haven’t done anything for myself all my life, haven’t I? And now that life was over the moment my kids left home,” Pepper says in Ehman’s book.

“I felt like I had nothing of my own. I knew I had to find something that made me feel good about myself.”

During that time, her mother died and Pepper inherited hundreds of photo negatives from her father and grandfather’s collections that would spend hours feeding in the darkroom.

She also honed her skills at the Saskatoon Camera Club with members nearly half her age, with an emphasis on wildlife photography.

Meanwhile, she presented her prints of photographs of her father and grandfather as an exhibition in Nova Scotia.

While visiting, she met one of the pilots from her early years, who had a $2,000 high-end camera just like her father’s old one. She had just inherited her mother’s savings and decided to use that financial independence to buy the camera.

“She said, ‘This is my money. I’m going to spend this money and buy this camera,'” Gordon recalls.

She had already done wildlife photography, but buying that camera was “a turning point” that allowed her to become an artist, he said.

She “found a rhythm,” became a volunteer reader at a local retirement home and made portraits of the people she befriended there.

Her craft became more sophisticated and she released her first exhibition, Decades of Voices: Saskatchewan Pioneer Women, in 1990.

Thelma Pepper’s photo, “Christine Driol, 1984”. (Submitted by Amy Jo Ehman)

It represented a collection of eight years of work interviewing women, all over the age of 85, in Saskatchewan.

Pepper’s body of work would not be complete without the moving interviews that accompany her portraits, which add a new layer to her art.

Thelma Pepper’s photo from “Thanksgiving, 1984”. (Submitted by Amy Jo Ehman)

“I want to honor these ‘ordinary women’ of Saskatchewan who…often considered unimportant, cut off from our society, their knowledge obsolete and their interests irrelevant to what is happening now,” Pepper said in a quote featured in a recent exhibition at the Remai Modern.

Decades of voices impressed Joan Borsa, a now retired US art history professor and curator who began a long friendship with Pepper.

When Pepper began profiling the area along Highway 41 for her next project, Borsa offered her insights from her childhood.

Pepper tended to build long relationships with her subjects before taking their portraits. Borsa’s mother, the first teacher in Yellow Creek, was one of them.

Thelma Pepper’s photo, “Aline, 1993.” (Submitted by Amy Jo Ehman)

“She had a way of bringing the camera back to her subject, even when she wasn’t shooting them, and you felt like you were in the presence of a wise person who was really dynamic and fully engaged,” Borsa said.

Borsa wrote an essay on Pepper’s 1996 Spaces of Belonging: A Journey Along Highway 41, which profiled small and disappearing cities.

The photos capture the inhabitants of the area, set in their geography – an old hardware store, a blacksmith shop, a field that once had a garden.

Thelma Pepper’s photo, “Victor Prytula’s General Store, 1992.” (Submitted by Amy Jo Ehman)

“She’s really interested in their relationship to place and something about identity. I think she shows us the inside of things,” Borsa said.

Jim would support his wife by driving her through Saskatchewan during this time to collect her art. In his retirement speech, Jim devoted himself to supporting his wife after doing the same for him for years, Gordon said.

“He was the photographer’s assistant.”

But the onset of Jim’s dementia in the ’90s soon prevented the couple from traveling as they once did.

Pepper decided to support her husband and stay closer to home by taking him to daytime shows. With less mobility, she began to shoot portraits of newcomers to Canada at the Open Door Society during these years.

She eventually found a room for Jim at the Sherbrooke Community Center, which would also set the stage for some of her best shots.

“Thelma always said, ‘I’m not just here to take pictures. I’m not just here to take pictures. I need to know the person so I can show who they really are,'” noted Patricia Roe, who was the communications and executive director. public relations in the center.

The center’s philosophy of caring for the human spirit resonated with Pepper as she captured portraits of the residents there.

After Jim died, she continued to build strong relationships with those who shared a home with him.

Roe’s said her fondest impression of Pepper was the respect she showed to every subject of her photos, which, like art, linger in the center even after their subjects have passed away.

The center named its own cafe “Pepper’s” after the photographer, in memory of the warmth she carried with her as she met each resident.

She saw it as “a sacred privilege” to be allowed to take one of their photos, Roe said.

The National Film Board has made a documentary about her time downtown — which is just part of the recognition she would later receive.

She later earned the Lieutenant Governor’s Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2014 and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit in 2018.

Borsa said she doesn’t see Pepper’s death as the end of her legacy. Her insight into the stories of the overlooked continues.

“Thelma’s work will have lasting power and meaning,” she said.

A cropped version of Thelma Pepper’s photo, “It Tastes So Good, 2001.” (Submitted by Amy Jo Ehman)

Borsa noted that Pepper explored notions of respectful elder care long before the pandemic brought the issue to the fore.

Young people also seemed drawn to Pepper’s work when she shared it in her art classes, Borsa said.

One young woman chose to interview her grandmother after viewing Pepper’s art — exactly the kind of “ripple effect that provides a strong commitment to Thelma’s work,” she said.

For Pepper, creativity imbued life with meaning. Her emphasis on collaboration with her subjects allowed her to validate the histories of women and small communities that would otherwise never get a second look.

“She has a way of seeing things again and playing it back to people in a much more challenging and broader way,” Borsa said.

When Pepper died, Gordon said the family received a torrent of condolences from people whose lives she touched.

She was an excellent performer, but her true genius was relationships, he said.

In her late 80s and 90s, he traveled with her, visiting her old sites along Highway 41 to find people who were overjoyed to see her again.

They sat for coffee and talked about their lives long after Pepper’s signature camera was tucked away, the photos hung in galleries, and Pepper waved her goodbye.

Years later, there was just as much art in unhurried conversation over a cup of coffee.

“It wasn’t necessarily about the photo, although obviously it was a big part. It was getting to know them,” Gordon said.

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