Exploring the history and architecture of Winnipeg’s Exchange District on a photo tour
The Exchange District in Winnipeg, Manitoba is a National Historic Site featuring a collection of preserved heritage buildings. In the late 1800s, Winnipeg became the gateway to Canada’s West. The Exchange District, which gets its name from the grain and commodity exchanges which flourished in the area, was the hub of the city’s growth. Today the Exchange contains boutique shops, restaurants, galleries, artist studios, performance spaces and museums.
During summer months, the Exchange District Biz offers a variety of history, themed and food walking tours. A new tour was added this year – a photo tour. Of course, I signed up.
The tour started at 5:30 pm. We spent the first hour at PrairieView School of Photography. The school offers a full-time professional diploma program as well as a number of other classes for professionals and amateurs. An instructor from the school shared photography tips, after which an Exchange District Biz tour guide (who also happened to be my niece) walked us past historic and photogenic buildings in the district.
There were seven of us on the tour that evening. A few were definitely more serious photographers than I was, with more experience. A couple brought tripods with them. A couple others were relatively new residents of Winnipeg and saw the tour as an opportunity to learn more about their city while also getting a few tips on taking better pictures.
We could not become photography experts in under an hour so the instructor focused on composition techniques. I’d learned these in a previous photography course but I still gained some new perspectives. Although not all of the sample photos shown were of buildings and architectures, it was good to focus on how the techniques applied in that context.
Rule of Thirds
Place the horizon on the upper or lower third of the frame, depending on what you want to emphasize. (Exception: when you have a natural mirror effect like a reflection in a lake.) Think of the photograph area as being divided like a tic-tac-toe board with nine squares. Place the subject of interest at one of the line intersection points.
Use linear elements to direct the viewer’s eyes. Emphasize by getting close.
The Bank of British North America building was built in 1903, replacing previous leased premises. In 1917, the bank merged with the Bank of Montreal and the Royal Trust Company took over the space. Today it is the new home of the Palomino Club, a dance club featuring live music from country and classic bands.
Give space in the photo for moving objects to leave the frame. This technique (along with use of linear elements) can help create the illusion of movement with stationary subjects.
The building at 91 Albert Street was originally built as a retail store in 1900. During the Depression, the Steinkopf family donated it to the Young Men’s Hebrew Associaton (YMHA) for use as its headquarters. Today it houses a cooperative of several businesses. The Exchange District Biz works with businesses in the area to clean up graffiti, but in this case the building owners requested the graffiti remain.
Use foreground and background elements (e.g. trees and doors) to create natural frames.
What is now the Burton Cummings Theatre for the Performing Arts was built as the Walker Theatre in 1906. The first performance was a production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The sides of the building look different than the front because it was originally intended to be part of a hotel and retail complex which never developed. In 1945 the building was converted to a movie theatre, which operated until 1990. (I remember my grandmother taking me to movies here when I was a child.) In 1991, it reopened as a performance art space.
In 1914, political activist and suffragette Nellie McClung staged her now-famous satirical Mock Parliament here, where the subject for debate was whether men should have the right to vote. “Premier” Nellie McClung said:
Oh, no, man is made for something higher and better than voting. . . The trouble is that if men start to vote, they will vote too much. Politics unsettle men and unsettled men means unsettled bills, broken furniture, broken vows, and divorce. Men’s place is on the farm. . . if men were to get the vote, who knows what would happen. It’s hard enough to keep them home now!
(In 1916 Manitoba became the first province to grant women the right to vote. Women gained the right to vote federally in 1918. However, voting rights were not universal for men or women. It would be several decades before aboriginal peoples gained the right to vote. Because of their pacifist beliefs, Mennonites, Doukhobors and Hutterites were denied the right to vote until the 1950s. There were restrictions federally and in some provinces on other ethnicities, such as Chinese and Japanese. It would not be until 1960 that the right to vote federally was universal, regardless of race or ethnicity.)
We were surprised to pass a door with a sign for a Toronto police station. Our best guess was that it was left behind after filming. The original Murdoch Mysteries movies were partially shot in Winnipeg.
Not everything needs to be shot at eye level. You can shoot at waist level, over the head, or bent down. (However, as you get older getting back up after crouching down to snap a photo can be tricky.) Get a worm’s eye view by looking up or a bird’s eye view by looking from above. Shots on the diagonal give the illusion of movement. Don’t forget the camera rotates.
The original four stories of the Daylite Building were erected in 1899. An additional two floors were added in 1904. The building was shared by a shoe store and a drug company. Various businesses have occupied the premises over the years.
The unique viewpoint of the Lindsay Building is caused not so much by photography angle as the triangular floor plate of the building. It was built between 1911 and 1912 on a triangular tract of land which was the result of the river lot system. In the river lot system, land was subdivided into long narrow lots leading away from the river. The location is a junction point where the lots on the north bank of the Assiniboine River met those running west at an angle from the Red River. The Lindsay Building was initially office space. Today it contains rental apartments.
A Few More Tips
The instructor at PrairieView School of Photography had a couple of other tips for us:
- If something grabs your interest, that’s a good photo.
- Think first, then shoot. Digital technology allows us to take a lot of photos and increase chances of getting a really good one, but taking a few moments to compose the picture increases those odds.
- The best camera is the one you have with you.
- The best shot may not be where you are standing.
- And finally, one of my own tips. Watch what other photographers take pictures of and what angles they use. Learn from them. I’ve been on a few tours this year with other travel writers and bloggers, some of whom specialized in photography. It was interesting to see what shots they took. (That is, if the group of us weren’t tripping over each other to get similar shots.) It was also interesting to see what caught the eye of the others on the Exchange District Photo Tour.
We saw more buildings on the tour than the few I’ve shown here. And the Exchange has many other interesting and historic buildings beyond what we saw on that tour. That means there are lots of opportunity in the neighbourhood to practice developing my photographer’s eye. And lots of history and architecture to explore.
The photo tour takes place on Wednesday evenings. You can find information about that tour and other tours of the Exchange District on the Exchange District site.
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