Henry Busse: YK’s first professional photographer
by Erin Suliak
photos from NWT Archives
Henry Busse’s early newspaper ads claimed he’d “Shoot Anything – Any Time.” It was true. Parties, community events, family portraits at home, nature and street scenes were all captured by Busse’s roving camera. Busse’s 54,000-image collection at the NWT Archives spans 1944-1962. It prominently features Yellowknife, but also documents people and places around the North.
As an Archivist, I spent a couple of years organizing and describing this collection. It was fascinating to immerse myself in Busse’s work, looking at the early years of my hometown through his eyes. Organizing, researching and describing tens of thousands of Busse’s images brought me closer to Yellowknife’s history than I had ever been. Busse’s photography reveals a lot about the early years of life in the ‘Knife, but also shows his persistence and dedication to document his adopted town. The photos accompanying this feature are a few of my favourites.
Hans Heinrich Maximilian (Henry) Busse was born in Germany in 1896 and immigrated to Canada in 1927. After working at a number of farms and businesses throughout western Canada, he was interned as an enemy alien during World War II because he neglected to file his naturalization papers. Released in the 1940s, he went north and found work as a pipefitter’s helper at Eldorado Mining and Refining Ltd. on Great Bear Lake.
At Eldorado he joined the photography club, refining skills learned in the 1930s running a darkroom in an Edmonton stationary store. It was at Eldorado where he met Oblate priest Father Gathy, who apparently used the club darkroom as a makeshift confessional. Father Gathy encouraged Henry to go into business, and in July 1947 he moved to Yellowknife where he opened the town’s first commercial photography shop, Yellowknife Photo Service.
At the time, Yellowknife was a booming frontier town, with several active gold mines and dozens of claims in development. Newcomers, such as miners, prospectors, bush pilots and entrepreneurs, flocked to the area traditionally inhabited by the Dene people.
Busse’s shop was the first of its kind in the North. He set up a portrait studio, took photographs of local events and did contract work. Customers also brought in their own film to be processed. Over the years, his photography became more refined and recognized, and eventually received international awards and appeared in several magazines.
Yellowknife Photo Service was in a few locations in Old Town, including the old News of the North building (an old Johnson’s Building Supply warehouse on Franklin) and a place across from the Wildcat Café. In 1958, he moved the business up the hill to the expanding New Town, where he set up next to the Museum of the North building, now Northern Images.
It’s hard to imagine a time where cameras weren’t ubiquitous. But in 1950s Yellowknife, Henry Busse’s shop was the only place to have photos made locally. He photographed sports teams, businesses, children’s birthday parties, crime scenes, and made thousands of portraits. People who knew him talked about how he was rarely without his camera, documenting anything happening in town: visiting dignitaries, fires, construction, and parades.
What can I tell you about Busse through his photos? He must have had a way of making people feel at ease around him; surprisingly, I found very few photos of crying children. He was likely fond of animals, or maybe he just had great business acumen, because there are many animal portraits. As many photographers do now, he spent a lot of time trying to capture the beauty of the North: sled dogs howling, northern lights, and the midnight sun. He seems to have been friends with pilots and liked airplanes; there are a lot of photos of aircraft in his collection.
On September 28, 1962, Busse chartered Ken Stockhall’s Ptarmigan Airways Cessna 185 for a photographic assignment in the Nahanni Valley. They were joined by two employees from Giant mine, but the group didn’t return at their scheduled time. Despite a two-month air search, their plane was not discovered until June 1963, crashed in a valley near Cli Lake, west of Fort Simpson.
After Busse’s death, the Yellowknife Museum Society approached his daughter, Elfrieda Hanselmann, to acquire his work and preserve it for future generations. When the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre opened in 1979, the Henry Busse collection was transferred to the NWT Archives.
A portion of the collection was catalogued in the 1980s, but since it is so large the entire collection was addressed only recently. Over 50,000 images were organized in 2007, and 3000 were given detailed descriptions in 2008. An online web exhibit on Busse’s photography can be found at: pwnhc.ca/exhibits/busse/