A Steady Lens

The True Story of Pioneer Photographer Mary Spencer

Sherril Foster

In the early 1900s, Mary Spencer attracted a small audience with her breathtaking photographs of the local scenery and townsfolk of Kamloops. Although her name remains unfamiliar to most Canadians, this enigmatic young woman likely captured the most notorious and familiar images ever taken in BC—photos so widely known that it is likely a rare Canadian who has not seen her work.

In 1898, forty-year-old schoolteacher Mary Spencer left Ontario with her sister Isobel and widowed mother and journeyed west via the Canadian Pacific Railway. Isobel promptly resumed her dressmaking and tailoring trade in Kamloops, but Mary Spencer had not come west to teach school. Instead, she set up a photography studio on Victoria Street West, and very soon became widely known within the community. In a time when women were discouraged from entering the man’s world of business and trade, Mary’s business thrived. Then one day in May 1906, Mary was asked to photograph a special subject. She was hired by the Vancouver Province to cover the story of the famous train robbers Bill Miner and his gang. Mary’s photos of Billy and his cohorts captured the imagination of a province intrigued by BC’s first and most charming train robber.

The life of Mary Spencer has been fictionalized and romanticized by poets, playwrights and filmmakers. She has been iconized as Billy Miner’s lover, companion and confidant, but the true tale of this stoic pioneering woman has never been told. In A Steady Lens: The True Story of Pioneer Photographer Mary Spencer, Sherril Foster tells her story and shares a stunning collection of previously unpublished photographs. Mary’s photographs of Billy Miner and his gang brought her “anonymous” notoriety, but it has taken more than one hundred years for Mary to finally be recognized as one of BC’s most prominent early photographers.