May-June, 1985. While Peterborough's Harry Oakman was an aerial photographer with an international reputation, across Ontario generations of beer drinkers knew him for one thing. As his brief biography (below) indicates, in the late 1950s he was hired to photograph, from the air, every beer store in the province. Eventually you could not walk into a beer store anywhere in Ontario without seeing a huge photo of that store and the credit ‘H. OAKMAN PETERBORO, ONT’. That’s probably what inspired Hank Fisher (aka musician Washboard Hank) to organize an exhibition of Oakman’s life work for Peterborough's artist-run centre, Artspace. Fisher is a Peterborough native who, in his songwriting, celebrates the foibles and virtues of common folk while doing his best to take the piss out of the establishment. (In another video from the Vault you can see him performing with his band at the time, Rev. Ken and the Lost Followers). So it was a natural for Hank to put Oakman’s populist art into a gallery that touted itself as a nationally recognized centre for experimental and provocative art.
In fact, Hank found an eager ally in Artspace artistic director David Bierk, who had recently spearheaded Artspace’s move out of obscurity by moving it into the city’s most prominent commercial building, the 100-year old Market Hall. (Bierk is seen here walking behind Fisher and Oakman during the introductions at 0:39. David was a master at designing gallery installations - it was his idea to build and install a near-continuous running ledge in the space that accommodated the exhibit’s hundreds of postcards.) David was astounded when Hank walked into his office and announced to him that living right there in Peterborough was an artist of international renown he had never heard of. By this time Oakman was retired from his career running the Peterborough Postcard Company, which over its history produced about 60 million cards (that’s the number Harry gives in this interview, and he should know; other estimates put it at 200 million for some reason) showing a vast variety of landscapes and landmarks, not just beer stores. In 1985 he was something of a forgotten man, but this exhibition, which accumulated an astounding 1,000 images, helped put him back on the road to recognition. Heck, today you can even drive around the Peterborough Airport on Harry Oakman Drive.
Harry Oakman was a real character: a ladies’ man who flirted unabashedly with the Artspace curatorial assistant who accompanied Hank to Harry’s Peterborough home, where his archives were meticulously stored, and an unapologetic showman who did not treat his photos as precious objects if engaging in a bit of magic in the darkroom would achieve the greatest effect. In a pre-digital age he was a master at manipulating his photos by hand in the darkroom. One of the most famous examples was the moose wading across a lake, presumably somewhere in northern Ontario, seen here at 2:30. If you look closely at the photo you can see that the moose, and the ripples of water emanating from it, were placed into a suitably scenic lake after the fact.
Despite his life’s accomplishments, Harry was not overly self-important and had a sense of humour, as can be see from the story he most liked to tell. That was the time, one spring day, when a deer was spotted running down Charlotte Street in Peterborough. Someone saw it and called the Toronto media to tell them to get their best photographer on it and of course that was Harry. By the time Harry got the call the deer was gone, but so what. He went into a Peterborough barber shop where he knew there was a young buck with a nice rack mounted on the wall. He took it down, positioned the head peeking around a downtown corner, snapped the photo, sent it in, and sure enough it was published. However, the joke was on Harry; numerous letters to the editor pointed out that in the spring a young buck’s antlers have not yet matured to the extent seen on Harry’s deer. Luckily this incident didn’t doom his career as a working news photographer, which kept him busy on the ground as well as in the air. In fact, one of his proudest moments was catching Terry Fox on the highway outside Peterborough, a photo you can catch a glimpse of in this video at 8:19.
Another great photo manipulation, as they call it these days, was the Sleeping Giant of Thunder Bay. As Oakman indicates here (3:14), you really needed to drop a big ship in the foreground to give a sense of scale to the anthropomorphic geological formation in the background, and if you have a shot of one of the biggest lakers in Canada Steamship Lines at your disposal, you can really make that aerial photo come to life. And that’s before you decide to photograph the chief of The Curve Lake Reserve, near Peterborough, and place his image on the landscape, creating your own tongue in cheek take on an iconic Canadian landmark.
Here’s the biography of Harry Oakman from the Peterborough Museum and Archives web site:
“Harry Oakman was one of Canada's most noteworthy aerial photographers. He was a pioneer in commercial aviation in Canada. Oakman took over 150,000 aerial photographs (from coast to coast) using custom made cameras that allowed him to fly and take pictures at the same time. He was also instrumental in establishing the Peterborough Municipal Airport. In the 1950's Oakman purchased farm land south of the City and built a small airstrip. The airport grew from that tiny operation. Oakman also established the Peterborough Post Card Company, specializing in aerial postcards. Over 40 years ago [about 1959] Oakman won a commission from Brewers Retail to take an aerial photo of every town and city in Ontario with a 'Beer Store'. Poster sized framed prints from this series decorate most Ontario 'Beer Stores' to this day. For many years Oakman kept his plane in Little Lake or along the bank of the Otonabee River, near his home on Cameron Street. Harry Oakman was also a tool and dye maker, Canadian boat racing champion, bush pilot and camera designer. Oakman's photographic collection (considered to be the largest of its kind in the world) was purchased by Map Art of Oshawa. Harry Oakman died in 1997.”