Appreciation Post: Clifford M. Johnston

Clifford M. Johnston, pictured above taking mirror selfies about a hundred years ago, was the guy who took the photos I use as the headers on this blog. He was born in Parry Sound in 1896 and came to Kingston as an engineering student at Queen’s, and was an enthusiastic amateur photographer. Throughout the 1930s and 40s he participated in international photographic “salons,” was on the executive board of the Camera Club in Ottawa, and in 1936 became a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. He died in 1951.

As you can tell his Kingston photos are his “early work,” and a lot of them aren’t particularly polished, but I like them for the different viewpoints (often literally) from which you can see Kingston. It’s almost as if having an out-of-towner taking the photographs resulted in a more interesting and refreshing documentation of the city, something apart from the typical images taken by commercial photographers. Of course, Johnston was also just talented. Here are some interesting pictures of Kingston by him; all were taken sometime between 1914-1917:

Clifford M. Johnston/Library and Archives Canada/PA-056161 (click image to go to source)

Clifford M. Johnston/Library and Archives Canada/PA-056126 (click image to go to source)

Are Johnston’s night scenes the first such images we have of Kingston? I can’t recall seeing any others. The first was taken from the end of Princess Street (on the right you can see the arches of the old S&R building) which around that time was known as “Little Jerusalem,” an area of town not commonly photographed. You may be wondering what the bright light in the photo is, but after long thought, I can only tell you that I have no idea.

The second photo shows Gibson’s Drug Store, which was located where the Market Square Bank of Montreal building is now. They’re advertising Coca-Cola, Kodak film supplies, Soussa cigarettes, and some kind of candy. Note the people milling around outside and the crusty old snowbanks, which are all too familiar this time of year.

Clifford M. Johnston/Library and Archives/PA-056157 (click image to go to source)

Johnston took six photos from the tower of St. Mary’s Cathedral (apparently they let you do that back then). Unfortunately they’re all pretty fuzzy, but he gets points for effort. I chose this one because you can see Elizabeth Cottage in the foreground and a few buildings on Princess Street, such as the stone buildings on the corner, the narrow store which formerly housed Turk’s, and in between, a building with a fancy gable that occupies the spot McDonald’s now sits in. And, smack dab in the middle of the photo is yet another Coca-Cola sign.

Clifford M. Johston/Library and Archives Canada/PA-056160 (click image to go to source)

I love this one: an engineering class at Queen’s, probably in Fleming Hall. Looks like the hip kids were wearing turtlenecks that year. Modern-day educators would be pleased at the amount of group work that appears to be going on – I wonder how much emphasis was put on this a hundred years ago?

Clifford M. Johnston/Library and Archives Canada/PA-056115 (click image to go to source)

Johnston followed this group of RMC cadets around town for a bit and took photos. Here they are in another unfrequently-documented corner of Kingston, Bagot Street between Princess and Brock. Nearly all the buildings you see are gone now: the frame building on the left has been replaced by CIBC, the buildings across the street are long gone, and the Macnee and Minnes building (Shoppers Drug Mart), while it looks pretty much the same as it used to, is actually a heavily-rebuilt replica following a fire in the early 90s. It’s always struck me as kind of weird that they did that, but they did.

Clifford M. Johnston/Library and Archives Canada/PA-056501 (click images to go to source)

Lastly, steamships along the Inner Harbour.

It’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to put together this little post, so as usual I’ll wrap it up quickly. It’s always a good idea to remember that there is someone behind the lens when it comes to photography, especially in cases where the photos are more “documentary” than “art.” For example, one of my header photos showing Princess and King Streets at night is found not infrequently in books and publications, but rarely with a credit line. I had no idea it was taken by a twenty-year-old Queen’s student until I found it while searching the archives – I think information like this can definitely change how you view a photograph. I hope you enjoyed these ones as much as I do!


Self-portrait sources are here (left photo) and here (right photo).

The Johnston fonds’ photographs can be found by clicking here; you’ll get a giant list (Ctrl-F is your friend). Be aware that many of them are not online, and there are also one or two that are labelled “Kingston,” but as far as I can tell are not actually in Kingston.

Biographical information is from the Clifford M. Johnston fonds description page.


4 thoughts on “Appreciation Post: Clifford M. Johnston

  1. The “building with a fancy gable” that sits on the current McDonald’s location was the Salvation Army barracks – it was still there (known as Abramsky’s Annex), in truncated form and painted yellow, I believe, into the 1980s or 1990s….

  2. I love how people act like selfies are a new thing when really self-photography and really portraits have been around for ages. Great post! Loved seeing all of these pictures. I think my favorite might be the one from the tower of St. Mary’s Cathedral because it has sort of a ghostly feel lol.

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