Geraldine Moodie, Pioneer Photographer.

Photo by Alexander Andrews

Susanna Strickland was born on Dec. 6, 1803 in Bungay, on the River Waveney, in Suffolk, England. Susanna was one of eight children of Thomas Strickland, a manager of the Greenland Dock, and his wife, Elizabeth Homer. Four of the six girls would become authors, Agnes, Jane Margaret, Catherine Parr, and Susanna. Susanna published her first children’s book in 1822.

On April 4, 1831, Susanna married John Moodie, a retired army officer who had seen service in the Napoleonic Wars. The following year, Susanna and John emigrated to a farm in Douro township, north of Peterborough, Ontario, to join her brother Samuel and her sister, Catherine. Catherine had married a friend of John’s and the couple immigrated to the same area a few weeks prior to Susanna and John.

The couple’s fortunes would wax and wane in Canada, as John struggled to find his place in the colonial hierarchy. In 1852. Susanna published Roughing It in the Bush, the bush is how she referred to the Ontario backwoods. The following year she published Life in the Clearing Versus the Bush.

Susanna’s daughter, Agnes, carried on the Strickland literary talents, illustrating Canadian Wild Flowers, published in 1868. Agnes married Charles Fitzgibbon, a lawyer and registrar with the Court of Probate in Toronto who had served in the War of 1812.  Their third child, daughter Geraldine (Cherry to her grandmother), was born on Oct. 31, 1854. She had a chaotic early childhood, as her father’s ill health caused financial difficulties in the family. When Geraldine was 11, her father died, followed by two of her siblings only months later.

Geraldine shared her mother’s illustrating talents and assisted her mother in her work. However, Geraldine’s artistic talents would take a different path.

In 1877, Geraldine travelled to Surrey, England to visit her great-aunt Sarah Gwillym and, while visiting London, met her distant cousin, John Douglas Moodie, known as J.D. The pair married on June 8, 1878, initially living in Lewisham, Kent with J.D.’s mother.  Their daughter, Melville Mary, was born there on March 3, 1879. When her mother-in-law died, Geraldine and J.D. packed up his father and their three-month-old daughter and moved back to Canada. J.D. and his father homesteaded near Brandon, Manitoba and Geraldine would follow them out after the birth of their son, Douglas Gerald, on June 14, 1880. Two more children were born to the couple, George Malcolm on May 14, 1882, and Alex Dunbar on April 13, 1884.

The family abandoned their homestead in 1884 as the family returned to Ottawa for the winter. Two major events followed. Geraldine’s grandmother, Susanna, died on April 8, 1885, and Geraldine’s husband, J.D., joined the North-West Mounted Police. His first post was to Calgary in 1886, where their fifth child, Alan Macaulay, born on January 18, 1887. Inspector Moodie and his family later moved to Medicine Hat, then Lethbridge. However, all was not well in the Moodie marriage and Geraldine and the children returned to the Lakefield District of Ontario to set up a house with her sister and her family. J.D. later took a four-month leave from the Force to return to his family. In 1891 Geraldine and the children returned west to Battleford with him late in April of the same year.

Geraldine had learned the art of photography while her children were young, but it was not until the family moved to Battleford that she would be able to take it up seriously. In April 1895 she opened a studio, the first woman in the area to do so. While she offered the standard portraits, she also photographed wildflowers and plants native to the prairies, North-West Mounted Police life, and the lives of the Indigenous people around her. In 1895, she was invited to witness a Sun Dance ceremony, capturing the rituals and traditions on film. Her work was especially significant as she viewed it from the female perspective, one ignored by her male counterparts. Realizing the significance of her work, Geraldine began to copywrite and sign her images.

Prime Minister Bowell’s visit to Battleford in September 1895 was captured on film by Geraldine and she received a government commission to photograph the various sites visited by the group.

However, the end of 1895 would strike the Moodie family a devastating blow. George Malcolm, the third child in the family, had been injured in a riding accident earlier in the year. He died from those injuries on December 12. Geraldine turned to photography even more passionately to help her overcome her grief.

The family moved to J.D.’s new posting in Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, in October 1896. Here, Geraldine photographed the ranching culture of the Cypress Hills and undertook a new, even more ambitious enterprise. Establishing a new studio in Maple Creek, Geraldine expanded to have a second studio in Medicine Hat, 60 miles away.

Geraldine travelled by train to Medicine Hat and stayed for two or more weeks at a time. She would return to Maple Creek to develop the prints. However, competition by male photographers and J.D.’s extended duties away from home to map an overland route from Edmonton to the Yukon, forced Geraldine out of Medicine Hat in the fall of 1897.

J.D.’s return created another period of instability in the Moodie marriage and, while the older boys remained in Maple Creek, J.D. and Geraldine returned to the Lakefield district. J.D. was ordered back to Maple Creek and then on to Macleod, but Geraldine remained in Ontario. When war broke out in South Africa, J.D. and Douglas Gerald, their eldest son, enlisted in a Canadian Mounted Rifle unit and Geraldine returned to Maple Creek to reopen her studio. On Aug. 16, 1900, Douglas Benjamin Simpkin, Geraldine and J.D.’s first grandchild was born to their daughter. True to form, Geraldine captured him on film, in the arms of both his mother and her.

J.D. was invalided home when he was injured at Bloemfontein. He re-enlisted into the North West Mounted Police before returning to South Africa. Geraldine moved back to Lakefield. However, she and Alan joined J.D. at his post in Moosomin, near Regina, on his final return from the war.

Upon his return, J.D. was promoted to superintendent, granted the position of acting commissioner, and sent north to exert Canadian authority over the coast and islands of the Hudon Bay and the Eastern Arctic. J.D. set out on Aug. 22, 1903 on the Neptune, with Geraldine and son Alex, who functioned as a secretary to his father, following in September on the steamer Arctic. Here, Geraldine continued to do what she did best and undertook to photograph the Arctic and the people who lived there, J.D. also began taking photographs but tended to focus more on the landscape.  

While the Inuit had been photographed before, Geraldine brought not only the perspective of a professional photographer but also that of a woman. She took an extensive number of portrait shots and the relaxed and happy manner of her subjects shows how comfortable they were with her.

Geraldine was especially interested in the beautifully beaded clothing of the Inuit women and commissioned an attigi, a set of traditional caribou skin clothing, for Lady Grey, the wife of the Governor-General. Geraldine’s work was also unusual for identifying her subjects by their Inuit names, a practice she carried over from her time photographing the Cree on the prairies.

The Moodies left the Arctic in the fall of 1905, though J.D. would return in August 1906. Geraldine accompanied him to Churchill on this second trip, where she remained for three years, photographing the Royal North West Mounted Police, the Anglican mission, and the Hudson’s Bay post, while also recording Inuit life in their summer camps.

Upon their return from the Arctic, J.D. served at a number of different posts. Anticipating his upcoming retirement, J.D. and Geraldine purchased their son Alan’s ranch in the Cypress Hills. In 1910, J.D. commanded a detachment of Royal North-West Mounted Police participating at the Coronation of George V. The couple also returned to the Arctic one more time, stationed in Dawson in 1912, where they stayed for three years. J.D. officially retired on September 14, 1917. J.D.’s health was not good and both he and Geraldine suffered from arthritis.

Geraldine suffered a stroke in 1939 that left her blind and slightly incapacitated. She became bedridden and was taken care of by her daughter, Melville. She and J.D. returned to Calgary in 1944.

Geraldine Moodie died on Oct. 4, 1945 at the Midnapore home of her granddaughter, Geraldine Perceval, the Countess of Egmont. J.D. died on Dec. 5, 1947 in a Calgary nursing home and was buried with Geraldine in Burnsland cemetery.

In 2017, an exhibit of both Geraldine and J.D.’s work called The Arctic Photographs of Geraldine and Douglas Moodie, was displayed at the Glenbow Museum. Geraldine’s amazing legacy lives on.