'Look for the story': Gifted photojournalist captured life in the mid-1900s West

After returning to Canada from his first major assignment — the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics — photojournalist Harry Rowed set out to tell the stories of people and industry in the early years of Alberta and the West.

Harry Rowed’s early Alberta photography subject of museum event

Harry Rowed spent decades taking photos of the Canadian West. Clockwise from top left: Canadian downhill champion Gertie Wepsala with coach Peter Vajda on Mount Athabasca in 1939; Inuvik children in the 1960s; Hudson's Bay Company downtown Calgary store in 1940; Children at an Alberta Hutterite colony in the 1950s. (Harry Rowed)

After returning to Canada from his first major assignment — the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics — photojournalist Harry Rowed set out to tell the stories of people and industry in the early years of Alberta and the West.

And it was perhaps his demeanour and relatable approach to his subjects that seemed to make people want to share.

Hitler's car, Berlin, 1936. One of Harry Rowed's first assignments was the 1936 Summer Olympics in Germany. (Harry Rowed)
Children at an Alberta Hutterite colony in the 1950s. (Harry Rowed)

"He was a real sociable, people person, which I think really helped him with access and putting people at ease," his son Scott Rowed told CBC News.

Harry covered people going about their business in the Rocky Mountains, the North, whale hunting, coal mining, farming, aviation and the dawn of the Alberta oilpatch, over a four-decade period starting in the late 1930s.

Scott has about 30,000 photos from Harry's collection but has spent a lot of time carefully choosing about 250 for a new event this week in Banff at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

After a snowfall, Harry Rowed went to Patricia Lake and took shots of the snow covered trees and Pyramid Mountain in 1949. (Harry Rowed)
Arctic beluga whale hunt in Tuktoyaktuk, late 1950s. (Harry Rowed)
Coal miners in the Crowsnest Pass, 1940s. (Harry Rowed)

It's a slide show narrated by Scott, tapping into the meticulous notes recorded by his father for each image.

"He had access to a lot of places because of his position with the National Film Board of Canada and also his jobs, especially editorial jobs," Scott said.

A spokesperson for the NFB confirmed Harry's tenure to CBC News.

"According to our employees files, Henry Newton Rowed worked at the NFB and he is listed as a photographer in 1943, then as a producer in 1945 and left in June 1946," Magalie Boutin said.

This Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser, owned by Al Gaetz, was used to transport skiers to Assiniboine, 1952. The next year it was damaged on the lake and sank. It's still at the bottom of the lake. (Harry Rowed)
Kids in Inuvik, 1960. (Harry Rowed)
Cattle crossing at Milk River, near McIntyre Ranch south of Lethbridge, 1950s. (Harry Rowed)

Boutin provided an article from the May 1945 edition of the The Monetary Times titled Who's Who in the National Film Board.

"Few citizens know their country as well as this 38-year-old westerner," the article reads.

"He has climbed many mountain peaks, and as a special photographer for Canadian National Railways and for Trans-Canada Airlines, he has covered by air more Dominion territory than most citizens hope to see in a lifetime.

"Born in Waseca, Sask., this fair-haired, blue-eyed cameraman began his career with the Prince Albert Daily Herald, and later worked with various other papers, including the Winnipeg Tribune."

Gertie Wepsala, from Vancouver, the Canadian downhill champion in the late 1930s, and her coach, Peter Vajda, summer training on Mount Athabasca in 1939 in preparation for the 1940 winter Olympics. Those Olympics were cancelled due to the war, ending Wepsala's Olympic dreams. Vajda became involved with the development of Whistler and the early Vancouver Olympics efforts. His grandchildren, Michael and Britt Janyk, were Olympic downhill racers and recently retired. (Harry Rowed)
Gertie Wepsala training at Mount Athabasca in 1939 for the 1940 Winter Olympics, which would later be cancelled due to the Second World War, ending her Olympic dreams. (Harry Rowed)
Otter in the North, early 1960s. (Harry Rowed)

Harry was born in 1907 and died in the spring of 1987 at age 79.

"My dad was a real master at working in the field, photographing people going about their daily lives, whether they were working or just hanging out in coffee shops or going to school or going skiing or whatever," Scott explained.

"He grew up in photojournalism, so his photographs were to tell a story, to illustrate the story that he was telling with words. This has been something that I've tried to carry over into my own work as a photographer: look for the story."

Indigenous woman with pipe, taken at Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta, about 1950. (Harry Rowed)
Harry Rowed at Jasper Park Lodge, 1950. (Submitted by Scott Rowed)
Fred Brewster lighting his pipe on a backcountry hunting trip, unknown date. (Harry Rowed)

Harry was the director of photo services with the National Film Board of Canada in the early 1940s, which gave him access not afforded to many.

"He spent time in the oilpatch in the early days of exploration in Alberta. He's got some really cool shots where they were actually flying into some of these sites on the prairies with a Cessna 195, setting up the rigs and cooking right beside the plane.

"And he also did quite a bit of work up in the Arctic. He was doing a lot of work with British American Oil, which turned into Gulf. He'd be down on the Mackenzie Delta quite a bit, and Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik, Yellowknife and Norman Wells."

A railway handcar on the Canadian National Railway line near Mount Robson in 1950. (Harry Rowed)
An Indigenous man at Lac Ste. Anne, 1950. (Harry Rowed)
The Hudson's Bay Company store in downtown Calgary in 1940. (Harry Rowed)

But where he was was less important than what he did when he was there.

"While he was in those places, he would also get out and spend a few days doing other things like photographing the Indigenous people on whale hunts and just getting shots of the kids, the huge caribou herds up there," Scott said.

Harry was fascinated with the mountains. He loved the Jasper area, making many trips to Mount Athabasca.

Harry Rowed in the Tonquin Valley, 1950s. (Submitted by Scott Rowed)
Westbound Canadian National Railway train just east of Jasper, with the Colin Range mountains behind, in the early 1950s. (Harry Rowed)
19-year-old Margaret Stock climbing Mount Athabasca in 1940. (Harry Rowed)

He took a picture of a young woman named Margaret Stock.

"This beautiful woman holding an ice axe and just expressing the joy of being up in the mountains. She was 19 years old at the time. It's just a real classic because of her expression and everything," Scott said.

"He was up with Gertie Wepsala and her ski coach, Peter Vajda. They were training. Peter Vajda became one of the primary names in the ski industry in the Vancouver area. His grandchildren were on the national ski team."

Harry also covered farming in southern Alberta, coal mining, the Crowsnest Pass and Hutterite communities.

Harry Rowed's wife, Gen Rowed, on a ski touring trip to the Tonquin Valley, 1947. (Harry Rowed)

Harry was profiled in a 1961 Photo Age magazine feature called One Man Show … Harry Rowed.

"Both writing and cartooning were among his early passions, so it was not strange to find him in a newspaper officer in his early twenties," the article reads.

"It is given to some men to know early what their life's work is to be; some never know, but once in a very long time the work goes seeking the man."

1961 Photo Age magazine feature: One Man Show … Harry Rowed. 1 of 3. (Photo Age Magazine)
1961 Photo Age magazine feature: One Man Show … Harry Rowed. 2 of 3. (Photo Age Magazine)
1961 Photo Age magazine feature: One Man Show … Harry Rowed. 3 of 3. (Photo Age Magazine)

Scott says he hopes people will walk away from the museum presentation with a few key messages.

"Stay curious, seek adventures and leave your comfort zones," Scott said.

"Love your family and friends, but learn from different cultures and people. Spend as much time as possible in nature, especially the mountains. Laugh often and live a full life."

Scott Rowed in 2020, left, and in 1980, right. Scott is narrating a slide show of the work of his father, Harry Rowed, in Banff this week. (Henry Rowed/Harry Rowed)


David Bell

Web Journalist

David Bell was the first graduate of Mount Royal University's Bachelor of Communication in Journalism program in June 2009. He has worked full time ever since in print, radio, television and now online. As a Video Journalist based in Moncton, N.B., his work was regularly featured on a national news channel. He brought that experience to the CBC Calgary digital team in 2015.


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