'This is war:' The story of a WWII reconnaissance photographer

Part of a camera collection belonging to the man who served as a reconnaissance photographer in the Second World War and helped build the TTC subway system is on sale today.

Family of Aubrey Martin selling parts of unique camera collection to raise money for charity

Cynthia Martin took this photo of her father in the early '80s, loving how it captured a look of relaxed consideration. (Cynthia Martin)

Aubrey Martin meant many things to many people.

To Canada, he was a Second World War veteran who served as a reconnaissance photographer. To Torontonians, he was "Mr. Subway," part of the team that opened the TTC in the 50s.

But to his family, Martin was a gentle, unselfish collector with a knack for problem-solving and an appreciation for intricate detail.

He died at the age of 94 in 2014, but now his daughters want to continue his legacy, donating part of his collection of 500 cameras to charity to make a difference in others' lives. 

Here's a look at Aubrey Martin's treasure trove of antiques, including a cameo from his great-granddaughter. He enjoyed collecting "the quirky, the outliers," according to his daughter. (Cynthia Martin)
Aubrey Martin organized and framed his pen and pencil collections by type. (Cynthia Martin)

Martin left behind several lovingly-maintained collections — pens, radios, clocks and hundreds of cameras, made by companies such as Bell and Howell, Bolex and Elmo.

"He loved the way things worked," said Martin's daughter, Cynthia Martin, speaking on CBC Radio's Metro Morning Monday. She said her father would often take the cameras apart to explore their inner workings.

Martin started taking photographs at 16, but he didn't start the bulk of his collection until after the war.

In 1941, he enlisted as a reconnaissance photographer with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

"He said he would never pick up a gun or never kill anyone," Cynthia Martin said, so her dad became the eyes of the Allied Forces.

A young Aubrey Martin poses with a Spitfire, one of the most famous planes used in the Second World War. (Cynthia Martin)

Martin and his team flew over enemy territory to take photos of rocket-launching sites and gun placement positions, quickly developing and delivering still-wet photographic prints to intelligence officers.

In preparation for his first talk in 2012, Cynthia Martin sat with her father to help curate PowerPoint slides, with big arrows and font, helping him to explain and pass on knowledge from his days spent with the RCAF. (Cynthia Martin)
These slides show how photos had to be processed, using portable tents and wash bins for prints. (Cynthia Martin)

Cynthia Martin remembers her father telling her about one incident before D-Day, when the Germans seized several aircrafts and used them to kill British and Canadian troops.

Overnight, she said the Allies painted white stripes under their planes so they could recognize the enemy, ordering soldiers to shoot down planes without the markings.

"A lot of the Germans were taking the identity cards and uniforms of dead pilots and prisoners of war, so in one day they did, for example, three-thousand identity cards and photographs," Cynthia Martin said.

Aubrey Martin added his own descriptions, small details of what went on during his time in the war. (Cynthia Martin)

Martin was deployed to 38 different sites, his daughter said, with the second-last being the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after it was liberated in April of 1945. He described it as "12 horrible days," and as one of the hardest things he did.

'This is war'

When he came back to Toronto, Cynthia Martin said her father found it hard to talk about his experiences.

"For the photographers particularly, they would hide away little photographs in the bottom of their kit bags and bring them home just to prove to people that this was going on," she said.

It wasn't until she was nine or 10 that her father opened up about what he'd seen.

"I had come from school one day and mentioned the war, and he went and got this album I'd never seen before and opened it up and said, 'Don't ever let anybody tell you war is glorious. This is war,' and he pointed at some pictures, which are still imprinted in my mind."

This is Cynthia Martin's favourite photo with her father, taken when she was 14 months old. (Cynthia Martin)

He returned to work in Toronto, growing his collections and working with the TTC to launch this country's first subway system in 1954. 

Aubrey Martin eventually became the manager of construction with the TTC, dubbed “Mr. Subway” for working on the country's first subway system.

He lived modestly, never throwing anything out, living in the same home in Don Mills for 60 years, all the while maintaining his fascination with technology.

Aubrey Martin had the chance to take a glider lesson with filmmaker Terence Macartney-Filgate, a Royal Air Force flight engineer in the Second World War. (Cynthia Martin)

Cynthia Martin said it was only two or three years ago when he started to speak about his photographs publicly. 

His last speech was in 2014 at a nursing home on the anniversary of D-Day, June 6, finally speaking freely about his experiences. It was 10 days later he died.

Cynthia Martin says her father was always very thoughtful on Remembrance Day, never believing conflict was an answer to a problem. (Cynthia Martin)

At his memorial service, his family placed 100 clocks and cameras around the room and asked friends and family to take one home, the best way to remember him.

Aubrey Martin, pictured with his many clocks. Cynthia Martin says he wasn't a hoarder, but he just had a love of electrical and mechanical objects. (Cynthia Martin)

Now, they're hoping to spread his passion to others.

His daughters are selling some of the cameras in Niagara Region and Toronto to benefit the Barbra Schlifer Clinic, knowing their father would want them to promote the greater good.

The Barbra Schlifer Clinic had a sale for about 30 of the cameras Monday on College Street, raising $1,700 for women who've experienced abuse. (Pamela Rice)

Cynthia Martin said they've kept a sample of the cameras to save for his grandchildren.

While she has high hopes the charity will make good money for their cause, she also wants the cameras to end-up in hands as careful and caring as her father's.

"He didn't see cameras as valuable in the sense that other collectors would see them," she said. "He saw them as pieces of art."

With files from Metro Morning