Saskatoon photographer found her passion later in life, but still had 40-year career

Thelma Pepper has spent the last 40 years documenting other Prairie women through her photographs and stories. 

New book looks at the life of Thelma Pepper

Photographer Thelma Pepper lives in a light-filled room in a senior's residence in Saskatoon, surrounded by binders that contain thousands of her photos. (David Gutnick/CBC)

Thelma Pepper has spent the last 40 years documenting other Prairie women through her photographs and stories.

What's amazing is the Saskatoon photographer didn't start her career until she was 60.

Now Pepper's life is being documented in a new book by Amy Jo Ehman called Thelma: A Life in Pictures.

Ehman said she was inspired after hearing Pepper talk on CBC's The Sunday Edition about how she started taking pictures at 60.

Pepper, now a centenarian, said in that interview that at that point in her life she had not really done anything for herself. Her husband suggested reading to the elderly.

"There was this Luther home just two blocks from where I lived, so I just went out there and within two or three weeks I knew this is where I belonged," Pepper said. 

Saskatoon author Amy Jo Ehman has written Thelma: A Life in Pictures. (Facebook/Amy Jo Ehman)

Ehman said she learned through their conversations that Pepper suffered from depression at certain moments in her life and that influenced the things she did. 

"[Pepper] grew up in Nova Scotia in a very warm and caring home in which her father and grandfather were amateur photographers and her father had a dark room in the bathroom of the family home," Ehman told Leisha Grebinski on CBC's Saskatoon Morning.

Thelma Pepper, 98-year-old photographer

4 years ago
Duration 0:39
Thelma Pepper, 98-year-old photographer

Pepper would go in the darkroom with her father and became very proficient at a young age. But she never picked up a camera until she was almost 60. 

"She was in a really low point emotionally and engaged with the world," Ehman said. "She picked up the camera and her photos are the legacy of that."

Ehman said Pepper was open in talking about her depression and that it was something her father also suffered from.

"It seems to be definitely an important part of her story, because there were points when ... that motivated her to try something else, to do something else," Ehman said. "She needed to find something that made her feel good about herself, something that others could appreciate and that she could share with others."

Centenarian Thelma Pepper has published four books of photography. (Dan Kerslake/CBC)

Pepper found that happiness in photography and the connection she made with the women she met.

She had gone to the Luther home to read to these women, many who were in their 80s, but it turned out they had their own stories.

"They really built personal relationships and trust. And it's only after that that she asked them if she could take their pictures,"  Ehman said. "She really wasn't a photographer up to that point, but she just was so compelled to take their pictures because just listening to them and connecting with them and learning their stories just filled her with such compassion and interest for these women."

Older people are often the subjects of Thelma Peppers' photos. (Thelma Pepper)

Ehman said it shows everyone has a story, there is something to learn and cherish from each person's journey,  and it's never too late to start something new or rekindle a forgotten yearning.

"Think of the thing that is the passion in your life, the thing that charged you when you were a child," Ehman said. "That spirit that makes you feel some joy about yourself. That's the thing you should put your time and energy and follow in your life."

Thelma: A Life in Pictures is in bookstores this week and also available online. 

The virtual book launch takes place on Oct. 15 through the McNally Robinson bookstore.

with files from Saskatoon Morning


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