The Sunday Magazine

How 100-year-old photographer Thelma Pepper captured the extraordinary in the 'ordinary women' of Saskatchewan

She didn't pick up a camera till she was 60, but since then, she's taken thousands of striking portraits. At 100, she's still passionate about photography, creativity and the beauty and strength of ordinary people - on Saskatchewan's backroads and in nursing homes. David Gutnick's documentary profile of Thelma Pepper is called, "These Women Live On."

For some people, life begins at 60

Photographer Thelma Pepper, 98, lives in a light-filled room in a seniors' residence in Saskatoon, surrounded by binders that contain thousands of her photos. (David Gutnick/CBC)

Originally published on October 21, 2018.

In April 2018, the Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan awarded Thelma Pepper the province's highest honour, the Order of Merit. And in September, MacIntyre Purcell Publishing will bring out a new book, Thelma: A Life in Pictures, by Amy Jo Ehman.

The Sunday Edition would like to send all our best to Thelma Pepper this week: July 28th is her 100th birthday.

Thelma Pepper didn't pick up a camera until she was 60. But in the four decades since then, she has published four books of photography, and her work has been exhibited widely.

Pepper, 100, has dedicated her late-found career to capturing the lives of Saskatchewan farm wives, residents of rural Prairie communities and seniors in nursing homes — people often overlooked by society.

Life really begins for a lot of people at 60.- Thelma Pepper

In April 2018, Pepper was awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, becoming the oldest person to ever receive the honour.

"Life really begins for a lot of people at 60, because your children have left home," she told The Sunday Edition's David Gutnick. "Maybe cells in the rest of your body decay, but not your brain's."

'I've learned the power of creativity,' Pepper says. (Thelma Pepper)

Today, Pepper lives in a seniors' residence in Saskatoon. When she talks about her work, she is bursting with energy.

"I think if you find something you love, it's just so exciting. You can develop that later in life. Your brain is a bowl of energy. If you activate that creativity, it gives you energy," she said. 

A second act

Her photography career didn't begin until she found herself longing for something new to do, after raising four children in Saskatoon.

"I had spent my whole life not really doing anything for myself," she said.

It's a great thing to believe in yourself.- Thelma Pepper

In 1980, Pepper began volunteering at the local nursing home. She brought in her camera, and before long, she had taken hundreds of portraits. She developed them in a darkroom she set up at home — a skill she learned from her father, also a photographer. 

"I'd be working in the darkroom till 2 a.m. My husband would yell at me, 'When are you coming to bed?' And [I'd say], 'Oh, I've got to make a better print,'" she said.

Capturing life in rural Saskatchewan

In the 1990s, Pepper decided to document the lives of people on farms and in small towns scattered along Saskatchewan's Highway 41. 

Along with her top-of-the-line Rolleiflex camera, she brought a cassette recorder so she could tape the stories of the people she was photographing.

"The key for me was really getting to know them and having them trust me," she said. "One woman said, 'I've never told this to anybody. But I don't mind telling you.'"

She was especially interested in documenting the experiences of women.

In an artist statement for her exhibit, Decades of Voices: Saskatchewan Pioneer Women, Pepper wrote: "I wish to honour these 'ordinary women' of Saskatchewan who carried much of the responsibility of the day-to-day survival of the family but stayed in the background while the men received most of the credit."

Pepper spent hours talking with her subjects about their joys and tragedies — large and small. 

She met one woman living in long-term care who, out of habit, still wore an apron. Christina Driol told her she used to bake pies every morning for a local restaurant until her husband asked her to stop.

Pepper spent hours talking with her subjects about their joys and tragedies, including Christina Driol, who lived in long-term care and, out of long habit, still wore an apron. (Thelma Pepper)

"Her husband said, 'I didn't marry you that you had to work.' She said, 'I have to work, or I'll go crazy,'" Pepper said.

In one recording, Pepper asked her whether she missed the work when she gave it up.

"I was lonesome," Driol said.

Thelma Pepper interviews Christina Driol about her life

'Something … in everybody'

Many of the women Pepper photographed had difficult lives, with large families to raise in addition to responsibilities on the farm. But they still managed to find outlets for their creativity.

"At the end of the day, they did something creative — making baskets of willow twigs or making pillowcases out of flour bags," Pepper said.

"It's a little thing, isn't it? But it's part of you. No one can duplicate it. And to me, that's powerful."

Pepper took portraits of people living on farms along Saskatchewan's Highway 41, including Sarah Sholosser. (Thelma Pepper)

Pepper suspected the women she photographed had hidden talents and dreams, just like she did.

"There's always something, I think, in everybody," she said.

After being diagnosed with Alzheimer's, her husband James Pepper, a retired chemistry professor at the University of Saskatchewan, moved into Saskatoon's Sherbrooke Community Centre. Thelma Pepper took portraits of his fellow residents, just as she had done at the nursing home where she began her photography career. Her husband died in 2003.

A few years ago, Pepper moved into the seniors' residence where she lives today. Her black-and-white portraits line the halls of the facility. Her Rolleiflex sits on a window ledge in her room. 

Pepper's photographs line the walls of the seniors' residence where she lives. (David Gutnick/CBC)

Pepper says photography changed her life. 

"I had a good marriage, but I married a professor who I thought was a lot smarter than I was. I didn't talk much about what I thought," she said.

"It's a great thing to believe in yourself."

Click 'listen' above to hear David Gutnick's documentary, These Women Live On.

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