The Canadian Art Database

Ralph Greenhill

Ralph Greenhill is slowly and sadly becoming a more uncommon name to hear in Canadian photography circles. But it is a name which has associatd with it a broad range of acomplishments - ones that should hold him in good steed in the world of Canadian photographic history. Researchers and photographers from the post war generation know him best for his skills as a photo historian and collector, rather than for the images he produced. In his lifetime, he contributed, through writing or images, to several publications, yet only four of these contained photographs he created.

Greenhill was born in Birmingham, England in 1924. He emigrated to Canada in 1947 after serving with the RAF and being stationed for training in Winnipeg. His life in photography began when he studied at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute in Photographic Arts, where he graduated in 1951.

The subject matter that became one of Greenhill's obsessions took form almost immediately, as he began to make images of architectural exteriors in Toronto, particularly of older buildings. The camera was not only a vehicle for people to view his work, it was his way of preserving each building and making a permanent record of its existence. It seemed to be a natural progression for Greenhill to broaden the scope of his work to include older buildings throughout Ontario. Unlike the city, more attention was given to the protection and care of rural structures; in particular ones that were significant or needed by the people in the community, such as churches and town halls. Yet at the same time, many buildings were left abandoned and were subject to collapsing and disappearing without notice. This type of subject matter was also one that no other photographer had ventured to extensively capture. And rightly so. It could only be accomplished by someone who had a deep appreciation for the task at hand. What resulted were examples of the finest work he created.

Ralph Greenhill is primarily known for his vast collections of early photography. Most of the images consist of Canadian subject matter, yet since no one was collecting those type of images in the 1960's, he collected anything he could acquire, as much of it was of very high quality.

His career in collecting extended over ten years. When he began, he seriously doubted he would ever establish a very large accumulation and only expected to acquire a few pieces a year. But he had just enough cash to meet his investments and would spend hours delving in antique shops for worthwhile purchases. Since he was entering a tight-knit community of collectors, word traveled about the gentleman who was interested in stereo(graph)s, or work that dealt with Canadian subjects. Within a decade, he had gathered several hundred pieces that took up space in almost every room of his house. The value had begun to steadily increase on such objects. People began to see their worth and were willing to pay for them. Good work also became harder to come across. Beginning in 1972, he was generous enough to sell and donate the majority of his collections to public institutions, rather than having them sit in a random safety deposit box or in a private collection, which is wonderful since the public now has access to a rich piece of Canadian history.

The most interesting aspect throughout Ralph Greenhill's life was what perfect timing he had. His collecting, image making and publications were all conceived of and executed at very key times in recent history. He was one of the first photographers to heavily photograph the mundane, yet beautiful structures that are so familliar throughout Southern Ontario. The notion of heavily promoting 'Canadiana' has not thrived again like it did thirty years ago and is unlikely to ever again.

Dee Psaila
Ryerson University School of Image Arts, 2005

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database