Thelma Pepper’s approach to portrait photography has always been to spend as much time possible getting to know her subjects – building their trust, understanding their stories, their background and their values. Only then does Thelma begin the process of taking out her camera and taking their portrait.
Although the majority of Canadian photography books have landscape as the primary focus, Thelma’s photographs reveal and share the stories of the lives of people who inhabit this land. These portraits provide an opportunity, and an insight, into understanding the potential strength, courage and dignity of the human disposition.
Thelma’s photographs can be found in archives, galleries and institutions across Saskatchewan.
Thelma Stevens Pepper was born in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia where her father and grandfather were amateur photographers.
During WW II a large Commonwealth air training base was established at Greenwood, Nova Scotia, just a mile from the Stevens’ home. Photographers from all over the world soon found the Stevens’ darkroom and they brought their latest cameras, photographic equipment and expertise – and shared it with the family. There were many late night sessions deciding what makes a fine print. The Stevens home became a centre of photography.
Following graduation from Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Thelma entered McGill University in Montreal where she completed her graduate work in Botany. During her McGill years she met and married Jim Pepper from Victoria, British Columbia, a recent PhD graduate in organic chemistry. In 1947 Jim and Thelma moved to Saskatoon, where Jim taught chemistry at the University of Saskatchewan for 38 years.
When the four Pepper children left home, Thelma began volunteer reading at a local nursing home. She listened and became inspired as the residents told her their fascinating life stories. After gaining their trust, a new journey into portrait photography had begun.
Upon joining the Photographer’s Gallery, and after receiving a grant from the Saskatchewan Arts Board, Thelma continued her work of making modern black and white prints from original negatives of her father’s and grandfather’s collection. This resulted in, A Visual Heritage, an exhibition presented at the McDonald Centre in Middleton, Nova Scotia and the Diefenbaker Centre in Saskatoon.
Thelma’s 1985 exhibition, Decades of Voices, where she both shot and printed all her own photographs, visually articulates stories of elderly woman, who, as homesteaders, were integral to the opening of the Canadian West. Creating the portraits was a deeply personal exchange, following years of volunteer reading at a local nursing home. After listening to their stories, only then did the woman release, allowing Thelma to discern and capture the “divine spirit” radiant in each. Decades of Voices was exhibited in eight provinces and one territory, and was presented at Fotofeis 95, an international photographic exhibition and festival in Inverness, Scotland.
Thelma’s third major exhibition, Spaces of Belonging – A Journey along Highway 41, (1995), shows the human faces in a prairie geography now swiftly changing – as scores of once vibrant small communities began shrinking and disappearing. Thelma’s photographs focus on some who joined that erosion, and also on others who decided to stay and are very likely there today.
Thelma’s next photographic collection, Untie the Spirit (2006), was an offshoot of a personal experience. Jim Pepper spent the final three years of his life at the Sherbrooke Community Centre, a long term care home, which had recently adopted a remarkable new model in elder care. In Untie the Spirit, Thelma’s photographs reveal elders living abundant and dynamic lives, vastly different from those comprising the more usual paradigm of the “old folks” home.
The book, Human Touch: Portraits of Strength, Courage & Dignity draws upon the last three of these major exhibitions that began back in the early 1980’s. The book, comprised of over 50 black and white portrait images, includes essays by Grant Arnold and Elizabeth Philips, as well as a poem written by Lorna Crozier.
Thelma’s work has been reviewed and presented extensively in various journals and publications across Canada. She was interviewed on Peter Gzowski’s Morningside, CBC Toronto, and appeared on the CBC television production “On the Road Again, with Wayne Rostad. Two film productions have also portrayed Thelma and her work: “Light Unleashed – The Photography of Thelma Pepper”, winner of a Saskatchewan Motion Picture ‘Showcase Award’ (2008), and, “A Year at Sherbrooke”, produced by the National Film Board of Canada (2009).
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