Title/Description: Greg Newton.
Credit: Leah Batisse (photographer), City of Ottawa Archives.
Date: January 27, 2009.
Conducted by Leah Batisse
January 27, 2009
Newton: All right. Well I’ve got some stuff written out here that is chronological order of how the company started and various other tid bits of what they did. I think you are only interested up to the point of 1959?
Newton: That’s short but sweet.
Interviewer: It’s a single period in Ottawa’s history that none the other museums have really focused on. It’s called the ‘Growth and Transformation’ period plus there are so many photos that the website wouldn’t support them all!
Newton: No kidding! [laughter] Well, if you want to start – in the early forties, I am assuming 1942 was the real formation of Bill and Jean Newton photography. Now Jean was my mother, Bill was my father. They started that business at a house on 326 Wilbrod Street, which became the business as it grew. All of our areas that we used to live in -- the basement area, the dinning room, there’s a sun room at the back, that was my father’s office, the main living room became the reception area and it was also the work area where a lot of the finishing was done, as far as mounting for wedding albums and finishing prints and shipping them out; it was the mail room; it was the reception room; it was the assignment room. In other words when there was an assignment that came from the Citizen, the information would be passed on to Newton Photographers and this would be put down in what they called the ‘Day Book.’ For a particular day there would be assignment times and places where a photographer had to be and the photographer’s initials were put beside that, as to say ‘Andy Andrews is going to cover this particular event.” So that, as I said, was known as Bill and Jean Newton Photography, until about 1952.
Then in 1952 they became incorporated as a limited company called Newton Photographic Associates Limited. NPA for short I use. My Dad was the president of course and there were several directors. The minute book, I am afraid I can’t find it any more. That was the standard Letters Patent for a limited company. You had all the directors listed, the meetings they used to have, annual meetings and that sort of thing, like every limited company should do. The one thing I do remember is in approximately 1952, I was to take a letter that said that this [Bill Newton’s company] was to be an incorporated, limited business, and take it down to the Chateau Laurier Hotel to have them date and time stamp it. This was legal thing you know, and I got to deliver that stuff there and get it stamped and saying that ‘this is now official.’ In those days, the Chateau Laurier was probably the only place that had a date and time stamp when they received stuff. Now this basically lasted until 1959 when Dad handed over the business to a partner he had taken on by the name of Don Ashley who basically said ‘I want your shares… put up the money for the shares you own.’ He had paid for a certain amount of shares and Dad didn’t have the money for it so he took over the business. So that’s the very sketchy history of how it started up to 1959/1960 and then there were other people who got involved in the business that were partners. But basically, the business did come back to Father in 1965 and he had restarted as Newton Photographers in 1961 and then in 1965 the old Newton Photographic Associates Ltd was struggling and he bought the business back and supported the one and only photographer there and he had a receptionist that didn’t last for any length of time.
But in the heyday, as you’ve probably seen, there were up to probably 20 photographers, support staff and all that sort of thing, in the business from the early business to 1959, which became necessary to support the 24 hours a day news business which grew out of the Citizen contract. They weren’t ‘staff photographers’, like you have today. They were under contract with the Citizen – they got paid by assignment. If memory serves me right, every time they went out to do an assignment I think it was five dollars to get a print to the Citizen. A reporter sometimes went with them, sometimes they [the photographers] would just take captions and hand that in with the photograph.
Interviewer: Yes, I’ve seen those [the captions].
Newton: Yeah, there are some still attached to the negatives. Beyond that, I don’t know what you have in the way of questions?
Interviewer: I actually have about 15 questions.
Newton: Okay, good.
Interviewer: We actually want to paint a really good story of not only the business of but of your family life.
Newton: Oh, Okay.
Interviewer: We are curious, how did your parents meet? Was it because they both had an interest in photography?
Newton: No. Dad, previous to doing the photography, was a drummer in the Chateau Laurier Orchestra and he was also the business manager for the Orchestra which was the Len Hopkins Orchestra. Now, they came out of St. Thomas Ontario and they were in the style of Guy Lombardo, you know big saxes… well its before your time.
Interviewer: No no, I’ve heard of him. [Laughing]
Newton: Oh Okay. That’s because you’re in history. [Laughter]
Newton: They were taken on in the mid thirties as the band for the Chateau Laurier in the Grill Room, they called it in those days. Somehow, I never did hear the story of how they met, but I presume it was through that interest that Mom and Dad hooked up. They got married in January 1940. I was born in November of 1940. They lived in an apartment that was in 209 Daly Ave. How they got started in photography was that they had an interest. Dad would work the orchestra at night and when he got off at midnight or at 1 o’clock in the morning, he would go back home and spend the night developing film and or prints because he didn’t have a technical darkroom then, he had a kitchen sink and this was when it was dark. He would then grab a few hours sleep when he was done that, then go out and take a few pictures during the daytime, then go back to the band at night and then start the process all over again. Once he did a couple of years of that he already had two kids, he decided he better build a house, and this is where 326 Wilbrod came along. There was a recording, I have a copy of it on CD, of Dad and Len Hopkins after he had moved into the house and one of the questions Len Hopkins asked him “why did you become a photographer?” and Bill said “well I started raising too many kids and I had to find a job to afford them.” He probably didn’t make much money as a musician. That was the basis of how the whole thing started.
Interviewer: And your mother? She was just as interested and out there working with him?
Newton: Yes. She was carrying around a 4 x5 speed graphic on news assignments when she was pregnant with my brother and the baby Marsha and was due while handling this in the forties. The good thing was that she could always get to the front of the line of photographers. If you’ve ever handled a 4 x5 speed graphic, you know the weight of these things.
Interviewer: I’ve heard!
Newton: They are quite an effort and she wasn’t the largest lady.
Interview: How did your father meet Andy Andrews and how did he become so prominent in the firm?
Newton: Andy Andrews worked for Dad. He came to the firm in the early fifties if not in 1949. He was in the air force, in the Ferry Command. It took supplies via aircraft over to England, and they would have stops in Greenland and Ireland before going to England. He was navigator and he got interested in photography that way and he joined us. We got a lot of people in the armed forces to work in the private sector. They were already well trained photographers already. Another one was Cliff Buckman, who was in aerial photography and Bob James who was air force. A number of them were part-time as they were still in the air force or the army or whatever. They would work the night shift. A bunch became full time like Andy Andrews, Ted Grant, Doug Bartlett etc. became the mainstays.
Interviewer: How did the business impact your family life? Were there people coming in and out of the house all the time?
Newton: All the time. My grandmother on my mother’s side lived with us, along with my grandfather. She was the Nana to everybody because there were photographers there day in and day out. She would give them lunches and sometimes supper if they were on the night duty. The only thing she wouldn’t give them was beer. She was a teetotaller and they had to get their own beer if they wanted it. She looked after all of the family and helped to raise the four of us, her grand children. We did have from time to time, maids, glorified babysitters basically. We called them housekeepers in those days. They looked after the kids, did some house work, helped Nana out with various chores around the house.
But yes, it was 24 hours a day. People on the night shift would be processing film that they had taken that evening, getting the prints out so they can get them to the paper in the morning or file them late at night so they could go out in the morning edition of the Citizen.
Interviewer: Did everyone discuss the day’s events?
Newton: That’s where the day book came in. The Citizen would call the Newton photographers and the receptionist would answer and they would say “we need a photographer at city hall at four o’clock….” Etc. They put it down in the day book and made sure that one of photographers on duty would be given the assignment. If it was a major event, like the Elvis Presley visit in 1957 there were photographers throughout the whole day from the moment he arrived until the moment he left.
Interviewer: Would they discuss if they were excited, or if it was an accident “oh my gosh this is terrible?”
Newton: I never heard anything about that. The only one I can remember that was tremendously exciting, at least that I can recall and that was the plane crash at Villa St. Louis out in the Orleans areas. They hit the nunnery and there was a big fire. I did hear a bit about that from Cliff Buckman a few years ago, and from Andy Andrews. They told me about following the ambulance and police cars directly out behind them to get to the crash scene to take the photographs and they were there as early as anyone.
The other advantage that I forgot about was that the Citizen made a publication about the history of the Citizen and it mentioned that Dad had a mobile phone in his car. It was the forerunner of the cell phone.
Interviewer: Do you remember getting the phone? How did it affect the business?
Newton: I do remember it now and I read the article. Here are some interesting facts: There was a big receiver/transmitter that ended up in the trunk of the car and it connected to a phone that was on the dashboard. Normally if you were in the car, it would just ring. If you were out of the car, there would be a flashing light and I think the horn beeped to tell you that there was a message coming through.
So what they would do is when they went on assignment, with a reporter, for example, they would go to an accident scene or something out of town, where any other reporter that wanted to get the news back to the newspaper, like the Journal reporters, had to get to a phone somewhere and call long distance etc. In Dad’s car, he would take the reporter, do the reporting, and take the photographs and be driving back and be calling the story in so they might beat the deadline and because the photographer was coming back they would rush into the office and get the darkroom going, develop the negatives, print the prints and get it off to the newspaper in time to get it out sooner than the Journal might be able to do it.
Interviewer: Was that sense of rivalry between photographers something that really drove your father? To get the best shot?
Newton: He was always doing that, including setting up things. The classic case which you’ve probably seen the shot of is of my sister presenting flowers to the Trumans. Now this was a set up shot, completely. Because at Laurier House, we were only two blocks away from our house on Wilbrod St. What Dad did was he forewarned our photographers that when the Trumans arrived, my sister Carol was going to come right out of the crowd and present the flowers to the Trumans when they walk up. He says “be ready for that.” So as soon as the flowers were presented, bang, bang, bang, the shots were taken. Carol was whisked off before any of the other photographers could know about it and our photographers went home and got the picture in the paper. The scooping was always between the reporters and photographers of the Journal and the Citizen. It was a great rivalry.
Interviewer: What are some of your favourite memories of the firm?
Newton: Always going down to the dark room areas of the basement. There was a studio there for a while as well… we did a portrait studio. I remember doing the proofing work… it was called a daylight type of proof. You would take the negatives put them up against photographic paper, expose them to light. You may have come across some of them that are sort of red in colour?
Newton: Those were the daylight proofs. You didn’t have to process them. You just exposed them to light for X number of minutes or whatever it was. Then you had your proof. They would send these out for portraits or anytime they went out on a news assignment, if there were people involved, they always printed proofs and sent them to the people to try and sell them prints. That’s how the commercial division expanded; because people got to know us from the reporting days or the Citizen assignments. I was to print those things in the basements; the daylight proofs plus the other regular proofs. They always had a little strip of clear acetate film that had ‘proof photo by Newton” on it. You lay this across the negative, or sometimes down in the corner, put the negative down, put your photographic paper next and expose it to light for X number of seconds and get it printed.
We were always in the photographer’s hair downstairs. They used to have a mirror down in the corner of the stairs to warn the photographers that “here comes Nicky” or “here comes Greg.” They used to call it the ‘Nicky mirror” because he was always the worst brother anyways. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it! [laughter]
One of the other interesting aspects of the business was that in 1957, when I got my driver’s license, I drove around in one of these cars, called an Isetta. This is a three-wheeled vehicle, two in the front, a double wheel in the back. The car opened, (it’s a two seater vehicle) in the front, so that’s how you entered: the steering wheel folded out with it and that sort of thing. We used to go touring around to take photographs of houses for the Multiple Listing Service [MLS] at the Real Estate Board. I put numbers in front of the house, take the picture of the house, come back, get it printed and send it off. I guess once a week, the MLS would publish these prints of houses for sale and the listing agent and all that sort of thing. All we had to do was take the picture with the number in it so we could identify it; and set up a stand with big numbers on the front and then take a picture of the house. I put on a hundred miles a week doing this sort of thing on the Isetta. That was a big deal because it was a constant contract with the MLS people which was a lot of fun.
In-between times I would pick up colour orders from drug stores. When they [Newton Photography] first got their colour lab, which was one of the first ones in Ottawa, they [Newton Photography] got the contract to do the amateur photography from the drug stores. You know, you drop it off at the drug store, and then they would pick it up one day, they process it, print it and deliver it. I don’t know what the service was, two or three days, something like that. This would keep our commercial colour lab busy, making the prints of all the amateurs. Those are the basic memories that stick in my mind more than anything else.
Interviewer: Did you go on assignment with your father?
Newton: Yeah. I did a royal visit one time. I was standing by the road, waiting for Queen Elizabeth to come by. This would be about 1957, ’58, or ‘59 – somewhere in there. I think it was 1957. I was standing there with a smaller version of the speed graphic and I was to take a picture of the motorcade.
Newton: I would stand there and wait; make sure everything was set up and ready and next thing I know swoosh…what happened? I missed it. [Laughter] We used to travel around the Exhibition grounds with the photographers. I carried equipment for them while they would photograph just about every booth that was set up in the Exhibition. You’ve seen pictures of our own set ups there in the 50’s; we used to have a regular booth at the Exhibition as a center place for photographers, but they also had a display of what Newton photographers were all about. One of the more fun things; I went on a ride I think it’s called the Round Up. It was big cage that would turn around and then elevate and I had to take pictures of faces across from me in this cage. There’s quite a bit of centrifugal force in there because it keeps you against the cage. I had to lift this speed graphic up, take a picture, put the camera down between my knees, change the film in a big magazine (there was 12 septums of 4x5 film), lift it up again while still going and focus on somebody else’s face. Because no other photographer in that organization would do this, so “Greg gets to do it. [Laughter] Little did I know. I loved going on the ride, so what the heck. We did tag along, mainly Exhibition stuff where they needed some help. They covered every inch of the grounds, from the top of buildings to all the concessions stands to all the displays etc. Sometimes we sold those prints to the furniture companies, the food companies and that sort of thing for the picture of their booth that year. It was a big business during the Exhibition.
Interviewer: You said that your mother went out on news assignments. What else did she do in the business?
Newton: She ended up, later on, more in the office area. She would do booking assignments on the phone; she would do a lot of finishing of the photographs when they were printed; they used to put a lot of stuff in folders, they would be glued into these folders; she would assemble wedding albums and she helped out a little bit with the accounting with my grandfather. In later years when she was working with me she would do the filing work. If you know what the collection looks like, all of those [negatives] had to be filed and cross-filed. So she did a lot of the secretarial work as well and Dad looked after the photographs and photographers and smoothed out any problems in that department; assign people to whatever was necessary. It was Mom’s duty to fill in all the gaps that Dad didn’t do. We had several secretaries in there at one time that did exactly what Mom was doing; finishing prints, spotting.
Interviewer: What’s spotting?
Newton: Aha! You see! There we go! Dust was a problem when you were printing from negatives. Dust would get on the negatives; it could get on the photographic paper when you were trying to print it. There would be little white spots and they had to be spotted out with dyes, the name escapes me right now, but there’re still in existence. On a photographic print if you see a white spot that shouldn’t be there, you took one of these dyes that were an ink like thing and you wet a very fine brush and you took a little bit of that dye on it and you touch that dye to match the colours. It’s almost like cloning in Photoshop these days, except it’s done manually. In the advent of colour prints, then you had to have all these coloured dyes to try and match the colours when you got spots on prints. The current processes today are pretty spot-free because there’re kept cleaner. I’ve worked in dark rooms in my life that you could hardly breathe in there let alone keep anything clean. That was part of the process of finishing photographs. That was a very important part because you didn’t want the finished product going out full of white marks or little hairs or whatever. You don’t get that in computers anymore.
Interview: Do you think your father would be all about digital cameras and everything right now?
Newton: He was always one to embrace technology. He was the first one to bring in electronic flashes to Ottawa and he was always upgrading the cameras. We went from speed graphics to 4x5 Linhofs, switched over to 2 ¼ very rapidly and then to 35 mm of course, although he preferred larger formats because the quality was there. Smaller 35 mm, well, you couldn’t get the same quality as you could with the other, the 4x5 negative, especially when you are making big prints.
Interviewer: How did the loss of the Citizen contract affect your father?
Newton: The contract, as far as I know, was never really lost. But when Dad had to sell out, it went down hill from there. The Citizen decided to let the contract out to United Press International. Dad worked for UPI for a couple of years, in 1960 or 1961. I think it was in 1961 that he started up his own business again because he didn’t like working for anyone else. He never did. He tried taking some of the old photographers out and starting a new company called Apex Photo. This was in the late fifties, but he was out of the Newton Photographic. There was about three or four photographers. He was too used being the boss and it sort of fell apart. Other photographers carried on with Apex as long as they could. Some of the other photographers like Ted Grant and Bill Lingard opened up a thing called Photo Features. It’s still going today; Murray Mosher is the photographer that is still running Photo Features. This was a spin-off. When the company broke up, they decided they would start their own company. The same way Andy Andrews did. He started Andrews-Hunt. Stan Hunt was one of the prime darkroom men in the Newton Company and he and Andy formed a partnership. Andy would do the shooting; Stan would do all the darkroom work. He was master retoucher as well. He used to re-touch negatives; you know to take the bags out from under your eyes or remove skin blemishes, you know. This was very fine technique of re-touching. It was like spotting on negatives, basically is what it was. He did with a very hard, lead pencil and again, it’s an art that is pretty well lost. That’s where you would see some of the old Hollywood pictures; they would skin that was so perfect, you know no bags under their eyes. You can do it digitally now, but this was all hand re-touched negatives.
Interviewer: Do you think photography remained more of a love and a passion than just a job for both your parents, or was it just a means to finance their lives?
Newton: It was both. There was nothing more fun for them to just do recreational photography. Whether it be family shots or scenes of their island cottage or of nature. They liked photography. But he truly turned it into a viable business.
Interviewer: I think that’s the end of my questions. Is there anything else you would like to say?
Newton: Well, I think that my love of photography came out of that. I tried other things before; I tried two years of university that didn’t work out. I went to work for Dupont down in Prescott and worked there for about two or three years. Didn’t like working for a living so I asked Dad if I could become a photographer and he took me on. He trained me from scratch, although I did have some basic knowledge, I spent the first six months working for Dad in the dark room, learning that part of the craft. That was a very important part; if you didn’t produce a good print from whatever negative you had, what’s the point? You could all the best photographs in the world, but if you couldn’t make a print of it… That was always in black and white and that the thing that always fascinated me because it’s so immediate. You take the picture, eight minutes later you can have a negative; once its dried in two or three minutes you could have a nice, pleasant photograph. Look at it, and say “well that’s not what I want”, but you could watch the image come up and that was the fascinating thing about it.
Interviewer: Do you still do traditional film for recreation or are you all digital?
Newton: I’m all digital. I find that this digital photography hasn’t been draw back for anything I do. I can realize that if I got out there with a 4x5 camera, I could probably get finer results, but it’s not necessary. Digital photography has taken the level of photography, in my estimation, down a little bit as to what is produced. I still feel that you do need to know the basics of photography to be able to produce a good photograph. Digital photography has made everybody a photographer and far less critical of what comes out. Everybody looks at their thousands of photographs on their computer and says’ isn’t that wonderful?” Try blowing those suckers up and see what you get! I like the way digital works, especially how to manipulate or adjust them; not changing them in such a way that I put somebody else’s head in the photograph, although I have done that. But basically, just enjoying the process and taking the photographs and that’s why I am never going to quit until they carry me out feet first with my camera around my neck.
Interviewer: Have you found now that because everyone is a photographer, is there as high a demand for professional photography?
Newton: There’s less of a demand. One prime example that I used to do a lot of was called construction progress photographs. Every month you would go into a building under construction and take the progress of what was going on for the owner of the building, a lot of them were government buildings, that were required to show what the contractor was doing and also for the contractor to be paid that much. Normally you would have a bid for the over all cost of the building that would be accepted by government officials or whatever. You got paid by the month so they could pay for their workers and the materials they were bringing. Now, an engineer, even the contractor can go in and take a digital photograph, show it to the owner and get paid. It was quite a process in some cases; you would have to produce 8 x 10 photographs, all linen bound for albums and there would be a little corner plate with the date, time and project. That’s gone, as far as I know. I haven’t done any of that for five years now.
People will set up their camera on a tripod and set the timer and jump in the photograph and get your passport photograph. It has produced a lot more in the way of images and some amateurs and doing just fantastic work because of the ability of the digital camera and their ability work the computer. I can still take good photographs but in some cases I can’t manipulate them enough to be worthwhile. Digital photography is a blessing from my standpoint because of the ability to get a lot of good images quickly and most of the stuff now, half the time I’m just putting things on CDs and they go on websites. But I still have the original photographs at very high resolution saved on a CD like I used to save negatives. I save everything on a CD and file them that way. You have some of them here in the Archives.
Interviewer: Do you print hard copies just in case something happens to the data?
Newton: Generally, no. If proofs are required, 4 x 6 sort of thing, family portraits I produce those, but the client ends up with all of that and I hope the CDs will be there forever. There are two sides to that story; some say no, they’ll never last, others say they will last for 50 years.
Interviewer: I’ve heard as short a five years. It’s an interesting problem, especially for archives because we are just learning about long term storage for electronic records.
Newton: If they are put on a memory stick, you have a better chance of recovering the file. It’s the CDs that degrade. I never started out that way and I probably never will because it’s another thing – I find it easier to retrieve from CDs. Now I’ve got CDs that are from 2004 and I’ve gone back to them just for re-orders and they are perfectly fine. The method of storage may have something to do with it. I keep the in a binder in sleeve which protects them from heat and light and this might be away of preserving them. You get things like heat, which can mess up negatives too. There’s nothing quite like the acetate falling off the back of negatives which you’ve probably seen; they get all crinkly and all that sort of thing. That’s normal degradation. Some of those negatives were not properly finished, especially in the news business. They were printed from wet they weren’t probably properly washed and then just dried it and filed it away. You try to do the right things with it, but when you are in a rush you have to print them with hypo all over it. The way we used to do so-called instant passports: passports in an hour all done with negatives. Fast dry and fast wash and if the print lasted long enough for you to get out the door give me you money! [laughter!]
Interviewer: Do you think your father realized that he was capturing Ottawa in this period of change and that he was recording that part of its history?
Newton: That’s a good question. I never really had that discussion with him although he was very meticulous about saving everything he could and having them properly filed in the negative envelopes as best they could in those before they realized how things could degrade. That’s the reason he kept them, because he probably had a sense of history. But to my knowledge, he never mentioned it that way. From the time I joined him in 1963 or 1964, he always had a filing system, but a lot of time you didn’t know exactly what the assignment was, especially in the passport field, those things were good for five years in those days, even the pictures. But you would get a file number a date and it says ‘man with a hat’. So then when you look at it, you say “oh, there’s the man with the hat and I made four passports for him” but you never knew who the guy was. So he was a little careless in that respect. But it took my realization when all those files came back to Father when he bought the old NPA business – there were walls and boxes of them, I realized that something had to be done with them. In 1967 I guess, was the first donation to the City Archives, just about when they were starting up. They approached us and said ‘we’d like to have your collection” and that’s what we did. My name is not Karsh and I don’t make three million from the collection.
Interviewer: Do you have a sense from your own work you’ve done the same? That you have documented the history of Ottawa?
Newton: Oh yes -- Events and places. Maybe not as historic as Dad got in news events because I don’t cover news events as a rule. Sometimes I do if dignitaries are visiting a hotel or a business; sometimes they hire me to take that particular thing. I really feel that some of things I’ve been doing for 25 to 26 years are very historic. My favourite one to bring always is the Encounters with Canada Program where I take kids pictures on Parliament Hill and I’ve been doing that for 26 years now. Basically its souvenir for these kids who come and spend a week in Ottawa and learn something about Canadian Life: it might be law; it might be economics; it might be sports and leisure. They listen to speakers and there are here for a week from all across Canada; they are 15 to 17 years old and they get a sense of what the rest of Canada is like; what the other kids from all over are like and they learn something about Canada. There’s a Citizenship week, there is a Remembrance Day where they listen to Legion members and get a sense of history there. I have photographed them from when they renovated the school from the ground up. Of course, every group that comes in – 26 weeks a year these comes in –the fall, winter and spring sessions -- they all have a photograph of them on Parliament Hill. That to me is a sense of history. Last summer, they had their 25th anniversary and gave me little memento of it for being there for 25 years. Stuff like that, I feel are important for the people involved anyway – it’s a great week for them to remember and these are the people I was with – if you can remember the names of a 128 people. I think family portraits are a great part of family history – this is how the kid looked at such and such a year. People don’t do it often enough except now, as I say, digitally, they are doing their thing.