Fred Schiffer was a unique photographic talent. He took pictures of everyone from political leaders, to famous actors and musicians, to the humblest citizen in Buenos Aires and Vancouver, and by doing so took the photographic communities in both cities by storm. From his arrival in Vancouver to his death in 1999, Schiffer captured the city’s transition from small town to surging metropolis, and highlighted the growth of artistic and cultural activity in Vancouver.
For a generation, Fred Schiffer’s work had been hidden from public view. But in 2015, the Jewish Museum and Archives of BC prepared the exhibit Fred Schiffer: Lives in Photos as part of the Capture Photography Festival. This online exhibit, based on the physical display for the Capture Photography Festival, is an attempt to showcase Schiffer’s life and work, and make it more accessible to the wider public.
Click on the photos below to see a full-sized image.
Fred Schiffer was born on April 1st, 1917 into a Viennese Jewish family that ran a printing and publishing business. He helped pay his way through law school by teaching himself photography and printing photos in his room. When Austria was annexed by Germany in March, 1938, Schiffer fled to England. He was helped by a woman known only by the name of Madame Troper, a wealthy American Jew who was offering aid to young men and women trying to escape Nazi persecution in Germany and Austria. Schiffer benefited from this aid but never met his mysterious benefactor. He arrived in England just two weeks shy of his 21st birthday.
Schiffer was the only member of his family of five to survive the war. Though Schiffer made it safely to England, his parents and two sisters were not so lucky; they later perished in a labour camp near Mińsk Mazowiecki, Poland.
In England, Schiffer met and married his wife, Olive Bohme, a refugee from Berlin, in January 1942, and together they had two children: Jennifer and Roger.
As the war raged on, Schiffer registered to join the British Pioneer Corps – a branch of the British Army – but was deemed unfit for service when a tumour was discovered in his left shoulder. Through the resulting surgery, he lost the use of this shoulder, but fortunately his arm was saved. No longer fit for military service, Schiffer was discharged and began his photography career.
After the war, in 1948, Schiffer and his young family moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Schiffer’s photography business flourished. Schiffer was hired to photograph actors, musicians, fashion models and politicians, and even had the opportunity to photograph both President Juan Perón and his successor Vice-Admiral Isidoro Rojas.
According to friend and journalist Malcolm Parry, “He always said he was the only person who ever got paid to photograph Juan Perón. I think he got paid about ten bucks, and they ran thousands of [Schiffer’s] pictures 30 feet high off buildings for years.”
In 1956, Schiffer entered a photography contest hosted by an American magazine. His nude portrait of Frances Taylor, a well-regarded American actress and singer (who later married Miles Davis), was a sensation and won him a trip to New York to receive his award. As much as Fred and Olive loved the artistic community they had developed in Buenos Aires, the hot humidity and tenuous political climate there had them considering relocation.
Olive’s brother Edward was living in West Vancouver at the time, so Fred took the opportunity of his trip to New York to also visit Toronto and Vancouver. The climate of the eastern cities in mid-July proved to be as miserable as that of Buenos Aires; the small town of Vancouver was a welcome contrast. Two years later, the Schiffer family moved here permanently.
Business was slow at first, but in the early 1960s, Schiffer was hired to photograph Premier William A.C. Bennett. This catalysed Schiffer’s career and before long, his skill and talent were in high demand.
With Olive at the front counter and Fred in the back, the Schiffer studio on the ground floor of The Bay parkade on Seymour Street was a hive of activity for twenty years. As in Argentina, Schiffer was called on to photograph actors, dancers, politicians, business leaders, and artists. Some notable portraits include Arthur Erickson, BC Binning, and Louis Armstrong. Through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Schiffer photographed each of Vancouver’s sitting mayors, executives at BC Tel and Scott Paper, performers at the CBC, and many companions of the Order of Canada.
Although Fred and Olive appreciated the peace and quiet of Vancouver, their daughter, Jennifer Levine, notes that they missed the more developed art scene of Buenos Aires. “Photography was taken seriously in Buenos Aires – there were exhibits in art galleries, lively discussion about it… But when my dad inquired about an exhibit at the [Vancouver] Art Gallery he was told that photography was not an art and therefore not appropriate material.”
In 1971, Schiffer was the only photographer invited to document the secret wedding of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to Margaret Sinclair, on March 4th, in North Vancouver. The following morning, it was Schiffer’s photographs that broke the news on front pages across Canada.
In 1980, Schiffer – now aged 62 – was ready for a change. Tired of posed and harshly-lit portraits, Schiffer longed to give his photos a more natural aesthetic. Instead of working exclusively from the studio, he began photographing his subjects in their homes and workplaces. “I did anything that would make them look natural,” he later told Malcolm Parry, “like themselves.”
He framed his shots from further back, giving prominence to people’s hands, which he felt told the viewer a great deal about the person’s character.
“Fred saw the writing on the wall,” photographer Alex Waterhouse-Haywood remarks of his mentor. “He purchased portable flash equipment and began offering his services to the very wealthy families of our city. He prospered while photographers with studios were struggling. Before the digital revolution hit Vancouver and changed everything, Fred was the most expensive wedding photographer in town. And he was in demand.”
On the night of January 6th, 1981, an arsonist set fire to garbage cans in the alley behind Schiffer’s studio at 658 Seymour Street. The whole block was badly damaged, and hundreds of Schiffer’s photographs, negatives, and papers were damaged or destroyed, including many of his Argentina portraits. The arsonist was later caught and sentenced to 18 months in prison. At his trial he told the judge, “I don’t know why I did it. I just do foolish things when I’m drinking, your honour…that’s why I cut myself off the booze completely.”
Another tragedy struck the Schiffer family in 1994, when Fred and Olive’s son Roger passed away at the age of 50.
Fred Schiffer was well-regarded by his peers for his ability to put subjects at ease. “I remember standing at the window with my nose up against the glass,” photographer Dave Roels recalls, “looking through to see his pictures because they were very artistic, very creative, and they had a lot of powerful impact in them.”
Schiffer was a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, a Master Photographer, and a Life-Member of Cameracraftsmen of America. Self-taught, Schiffer believed in formal photographic training, and was instrumental in establishing the Professional Photography program at Langara College, the first such diploma program in Western Canada. Following his death on November 6th, 1999, a scholarship was established at Langara in his name.
Olive Schiffer donated her husband’s photographs and documents to the Jewish Museum and Archives of BC in November 2001. She passed away on June 4th, 2004. The Jewish Museum and Archives of BC is grateful to have this collection and is pleased to bring it to the public.
This online exhibit is adapted from the 2015 exhibit of the same name presented by the Jewish Museum and Archives of BC as part of the 2015 Capture Photography Festival. This adaptation was made possible through the generous support of the Government of Canada Young Canada Works program and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Vancouver.