Don Newlands’s work defined Canadian photojournalism and documentary photography for close to two decades. Newlands worked as a photographer and photo editor during the 1960s and early 1970s for many nationally and internationally significant publications, including The Canadian, Weekend, Maclean’s, Black Star, Time, Life, and Paris Match.
Dolores Gubasta is a photo editor and owner of the KlixPix photography agency in Toronto, Ontario. She produces editorial projects nationally and internationally and is the agent for the Don Newlands image collection.
I first laid eyes on Don Newlands’s photography when researching images for a Maclean’s feature book about Pierre Trudeau in 2000. Newlands had incredible images of a young Trudeau attempting to row to Cuba in 1960. Trudeau is pictured with two friends in a canoe on the high seas on the Gulf of Mexico wearing a white turban around his head.
I started my career at the Canadian Press picture department, where I washed and dried thousands of pictures, many of Trudeau. These Cuba pictures were taken long before he became prime minister. I was curious to meet Newlands and to ask my burning question: “How did you end up on that trip?” When I finally got my chance, I asked the question and Newlands replied, “Pierre kept threatening to row to Cuba. I told him to call me when you do it.”
Don Newlands was born in 1927 and grew up in the wealthy Westmount neighbourhood of Montreal, Quebec. The only child of a beautiful mother and a handsome father who was the president of a typewriter company. He was pampered and well schooled, especially in the arts. During this time, Newlands befriended a racy pack of intellectuals, including Pierre Trudeau, musicians and poets such as Leonard Cohen, artists, writers, and wealthy business people. Montreal was an exciting city fuelled by creativity. As a budding photographer at the time, Newlands was called on by his friend Trudeau to photograph his author’s portrait for his first published book.
His talent was obvious. By early 1961, he had moved to Toronto and was shooting freelance for all the big magazines of the day. He was also the only photographer for Black Star in Canada. Black Star, based in New York, specialized in photojournalism and was closely identified with Time, Life, and Paris Match magazines.
Around 2001, I pressed Newlands to show me what else he had in his collection of images. A long-time photo editor and researcher for magazines and Canadian history books, I was surprised I had not come across his work earlier. Newlands had kept his body of work stored in the basement of his home near Colborne, Ontario.
While his contemporaries had sold their image collections to the National Archives, he wanted none of that. He had concerns that once his collection was tucked away in an archive, the images would not see the light of day.
At this time, I was running my own photo assignment agency and working extensively with Time magazine. They were interested in reflecting our Canadian heritage back to us. At one point, a history of Canadian photography book was proposed and, for some reason, the publisher had hired Time magazine editors in New York to put it together. I was asked to contribute, and that is why, Newlands’s images found their way to my office.
He arrived at my office screeching into the driveway in his duct-taped Firebird with a flaming bird decal on the hood. He brought me a selection of his favourite images, about a hundred 11 x 14 inch black and white fibre-based prints. They were dog-eared, crop-marked with grease pencil, and stamped with dates and notes from publishers. As a photo researcher who had leafed through thousands of old photo files at every newspaper in town, I was in awe of the scope of his talent. His imagery had a raw honesty equal to that of some of the best international photographers of the day. Yet, he was largely unknown.
In all my years as a photo editor, I had not seen such real work about Canada. His photo essays documented Canadians: from a large New Brunswick family lined up in front of their run-down farmhouse, to Inuit people on the shores of James Bay, to portraits of the elite Quebec intelligentsia, to powerful Ottawa politicians, to photos of hippie musicians singing in Yorkville, Toronto. The breadth and quality of the work was impressive.
Newlands documented Canada’s coming of age during the 1960s and early ’70s. He photographed creative cultural icons, including Sylvia and Ian Tyson, Gordon Lightfoot, Ronnie Hawkins, Anne Murray, and Christopher Plummer. He had connections with politicians, including Joey Smallwood, Paul Martin Senior, and Preston Manning. As well, his ties in the business community gave him access to K.C. Irving and important families such as the McCains.
He also had a vast collection of social documentary work about everyday people: a large man on a bulldozer building roads through the Rockies; rodeo goers at the Calgary Stampede; children balancing on floating logs in B.C. logging camps; kids playing on the colourful streets of St. John’s; young rural Quebec teens riding their banana bikes with separatist gang logos on the backs of their vests.
Unfortunately, the history of Canadian photography book never materialized.
Newlands was a passionate character who had the patience to wait for the decisive moment to trip the shutter. He was stunningly good-looking with an incredible ability to charm and disarm male and female portrait subjects. Newlands had the luxury of spending time getting to know his subjects, capturing them in natural environmental portraits. His images rendered a true sense of his subjects, showing who they were and what they did. In a rare and beautiful photo essay documenting the quintessential power of New Brunswick businessman K.C. Irving, Newlands spent several days documenting Irving and his sons travelling from their offices and home to Irving oil refineries, wilderness logging camps, sawmills, paper mills, and newspaper offices.
Newlands lost interest in photographing people in the early 1970s, when art directors started to go along on portrait shoots to personally set up lights and pose people. After an incredible career that ranged from the great era of photojournalism and documentary style photo spreads to the posed set up portraiture still common today, Newlands became disenchanted. Following his next great obsession, he became an avid ham radio operator from his home in Colborne, Ontario. He loved to speak with people all over the world, despite living a secluded and solitary life.
Newlands was intensely private and he rebuked many of my attempts to go see him and his collection. We did, in time, share stories and experiences about Canadian photography and journalism. Eventually, we became friends. Sadly, our friendship had a time limit. Newlands had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He once said to me, “You can’t believe how amazing every blade of grass and each new bud on a tree is when you’ve only been given a month to live.” His joie de vivre kept him alive for another five years.
Because of his illness, I was worried about him living alone. I was relieved when he called me to tell me he had been reunited with his ex-wife Pauline. Undeniably, they were the great loves of each other’s lives. She took him into her home, fed him with her amazing cooking, and kept him healthy.
After the 2006 book launch of John English’s Citizen of the World - The Life and Times of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, featuring Newlands’s first portrait of Trudeau as the cover image, I was invited for a meal at Pauline’s house. I saw how much love, admiration, and fun they had at this late stage of life. I realized that Newlands’s story went way beyond his photographic work. When the Colborne house was sold, the couple brought the rest of Newlands’s pictures to me. I became the keeper of the Don Newlands Collection.
Newlands work won many art and photography awards in Canada, the United States, and Europe. Sadly, now there are but a few remaining art directors, photographers, and friends who knew him and his photographs. To me and to those who knew him, he was a legend and a vibrant character, well worthy of note as a contributor to Canadian photojournalism history.
The Don Newlands Collection: Now & in the Future:
Over the last 15 years, I have exhibited key images from the Don Newlands Collection. In 2005, I curated an exhibition of his work for the CONTACT Festival of Photography in Toronto.
With the dedicated help of Kamelia Pezeshki and Rita Godlevskis, I have been working to digitize, preserve, and share the archive. The collection consists of over 1000 black and white fibre-based prints and thousands of colour 35mm & 120 format transparencies.
Sadly, some of Newlands work has become damaged in poor storage conditions. Some of these images have transformed themselves. The patina of time has created new unintentional compositions.
As Newlands documented Canada’s coming of age, Canada’s 150th celebration is the ideal time to share his work with all Canadians.
To see more work by Don Newlands, visit: www.klixpix.com