By The Jewish Museum and Archives of BC
Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia
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 and more information about the photo.
Early Life and Buenos Aires
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.
Rosa Maria Juana Martinez Suarez (b. 1927) is an Argentine actress known by her stage name, Mirtha Legrand. She and her twin sister, Silvia Legrand, began their acting careers in 1940 with the film Hay Que Educar a Nini. Legrand starred in over 30 films over the following 25 years. Since 1968, she has hosted the popular talk show, “Lunch with Mirtha Legrand,” welcoming guests from Hollywood and around the world.
Renée Dumas (née Korn Nelly Diaz) is an Argentine actress. She made her debut appearance in the 1948 film, Maria of the Angels, and went on to star in numerous Argentine and Mexican films through the 1950s and early 1960s.
Norma Aleandro L.23930
Norma Aleandro Robleba (b. 1936) is an Argentine actress, screenwriter, and theatre director. A critic of the military rule of Argentina, Aleandro was exiled to Uruguay and Spain in the late 1970s. She returned to Argentina in 1982, and resumed her work in film and theatre. She has appeared in many Argentine and Hollywood films, performing alongside stars including Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney, and Charlotte Gainsbourg. She was nominated in 1987 for Best Supporting Actress from both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, and in 1985, she won the Cannes Award for Best Actress.
George Rigaud, né Pedro Jorge Rigato Delissetche (1905-1984) was a prolific Argentine actor who appeared in one hundred and ninety four films between 1932 and 1981. He was killed in a road accident in Madrid, Spain in 1984.
Witold Małcużyński (1914-1977) was a distinguished Polish classical pianist renowned for his elegant interpretations of the works of Frederic Chopin.
Luigina Lollobrigida (b. 1927) was an international screen legend during the 1950s and 60s. In the 1970s, she took up photojournalism and sculpture, interviewing Fidel Castro, Henry Kissinger, Salvador Dalí, among other notable personalities. Born in Italy, she now lives in Spain. Visible on this image are pencil notes of changes Lollobrigida requested Schiffer to make.
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.
Born in Chicago, Frances Taylor (b. 1929) began her dance career on the New York stage at the age of 16. She went on to perform in the Paris Opera Ballet, the original production of West Side Story, and opposite Sammy Davis Jr. in Mr. Wonderful, Porgy and Bess, and Shinbone Alley. Introduced by drummer Max Roach, Taylor married Miles Davis in 1958. The marriage lasted for nine years, before Davis’ violent demeanour became too much for Taylor to bear.
Frances Taylor (ca.1953) by Fred SchifferThe Jewish Museum and Archives of BC
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.”
Autorretrato (Self-Portait) (ca.1956-7) by Fred SchifferThe Jewish Museum and Archives of BC
Courtesy Jennifer Levine
This image demonstrates Schiffer’s exceptional skills of photo manipulation. “Fred’s self-portrait is way ahead of its time,” notes photographer Don MacGregor. For the era, decades before Photoshop, “it was leading edge both technically and artistically. Each element of the composition stands out on its own yet works in harmony to tell a story. These elements are balanced such that your eye moves throughout the image and returns to the main image. The relationship of each image as part of the story of the photographer simply brings a smile to me and other photographers who have seen it.”
Woman with Notebooks (ca.1953) by Fred SchifferThe Jewish Museum and Archives of BC
Life and Career in Vancouver
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.
George Zukerman Quartet, CBC Studios
George Zukerman (top left), CC, OBC (b. 1927) is regarded as one of the world’s foremost bassoonists and has played solo and in ensembles around the world, actively increasing the popularity of bassoon as a solo instrument. Pictured left to right: George Zukerman, unknown, Ozzie McComb, and Harvey Adams.
Louis Armstrong, CBC (1959-10-08) by Fred SchifferThe Jewish Museum and Archives of BC
Louis Armstrong, CBC
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) was a renowned American jazz musician virtuosic trumpet player, and influential cultural figure. He was one of the first African-American entertainers to successfully cross the colour line of racially segregated America, his charisma and talent earning affection throughout the country and internationally. Armstrong’s impact on jazz and popular music was tremendous. In the words of Bing Crosby, “He is the beginning and the end of music in America.”
“Boy Calling Long Distance” (Advertisement for BC Tel)
A rare look inside Schiffer’s studio, this photo depicts Fred Schiffer at work on an advertisement for BC Telephone Company produced by Lovick Advertising. The boy being photographed is likely Richard Tattersall.
Nicholas Goldschmidt, CC (1908-2004) made an extraordinary impact on the spread of classical music in Canada. A Moravian-born conductor, pianist and vocalist trained at the Vienna Academy of Music, Goldschmidt moved to Toronto in 1946. Over the following decades, he held directorships at institutions across the country, including being the founding music director of CBC Opera and music director at the University of British Columbia.
Murray Goldman L.24477
Born in Poland and raised in Montreal, Murray Goldman (1920-2013) opened a string of menswear stores in Vancouver, building on his pre-war experience in the Montreal clothing industry. He quickly built a name for himself for his creative and humorous advertising campaigns. Beginning in 1956, a giant caricature of Goldman’s face hung on the outfield fence of Capilano (Nat Bailey) Stadium, offering $100,000 to any home team player to send a ball through Goldman’s smiling mouth. Luckily, no one ever did. But Goldman insured the sign just in case. Read more about Murray Goldman’s antics and accomplishments in the 2015 edition of the Jewish Museum and Archive’s annual journal, The Scribe.
B.C. Binning L.24847
Dr. Bertrand Charles Binning (1909-1976) was a notable artist and teacher of art in Vancouver during the late 20th century. The founding director of the UBC Department of Fine Art, Binning and his wife Jessie were at the centre of a thriving cultural circle, that included Lawren and Bess Harris, Gordon and Marion Smith, John Koerner, and Jack and Doris Shadbolt. Binning was a co-founder of the Art in Living Group, represented Canada at the 1954 Venice Biennale, and established the UBC Festival of Contemporary Arts.
Jack Wasserman L.24846
As a newspaper columnist for The Vancouver Sun, and a radio personality, Jack Wasserman (1927-1977) reported on Vancouver nightlife, celebrity culture, and local politics. Through interviews with guests including Nina Simone, Richard Pryor, Dusty Springfield, Eric Burdon and Tommy Douglas, Wasserman shared with his audience the cultural pulse of the 1950s and 1960s. He is memorialized by “Wasserman’s Beat”, the officially renamed stretch of Hornby Street once home to The Cave nightclub, one of his regular haunts.
Born in Toronto, John Braithwaite was elected to City Council in North Vancouver in 1972, serving until 1976. He returned to municipal politics in 1983 and was re-elected consecutively until his retirement in 2002. The John Braithwaite Community Centre in North Vancouver is named in his honour.
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.
Tom Hill, CBC (1959-08-13) by Fred SchifferThe Jewish Museum and Archives of BC
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.
August Shellenberg (Playhouse)
August Shellenberg (1936-2013), was a Canadian actor of Mohawk and Swiss-German descent. Trained at the National Theatre School of Canada, Shellenberg appeared in many roles in theatre, film and television, earning a Genie for his role in Black Robe and an Emmy for his role as Chief Sitting Bull in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Shellenberg died at age 77 shortly after completing a lifelong ambition of mounting an all-aboriginal version of King Lear.
Cufflinks (1968-05-15) by Fred SchifferThe Jewish Museum and Archives of BC
Jack Webster (1967-12-13) by Fred SchifferThe Jewish Museum and Archives of BC
Originally from Glasgow, Jack Webster, CM (1918-1999), was a highly regarded and recognized journalist in newspaper, radio, an television in Vancouver from the close of World War II until his retirement in 1995. He reported for CBC, The Vancouver Sun, CKNW, BCTV and CHEK-TV. In 1963, while working for CKNW, Webster successfully acted as mediator during a hostage standoff at the BC Penitentiary, at the request of the prisoners.
Later Life and Legacy
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.”
Laurie and Harley Rothstein (1968-05-03) by Fred SchifferThe Jewish Museum and Archives of BC
Laurie and Harley Rothstein
Siblings Laurie (b. 1949) and Harley Rothstein (b. 1946) are the children of Norman and Annette Rothstein, noted supporters of theatre and the arts, as well as many Jewish causes in post-war Vancouver. Harley fondly recalls having this portrait taken. “Fred wanted to try something different,” he says, “He was very proud of this photo and hung it in his studio window for over a year. I used to get stopped in the street by people saying ‘Don’t I know you?’ It really captures something of the spirit of the time. People were very excited about what they thought would be a significant period of cultural and political change.”
Jack Diamond L.22821
Jack Diamond, CC, OBC (1909-2001) was an influential Canadian businessman and philanthropist. Born in Galicia, Ukraine, Diamond immigrated to Vancouver in 1927. He grew his small butcher shop into BC’s largest meatpacking firm, Pacific Meats. From 1975 to 1978, Diamond served as Chancellor of Simon Fraser University. Diamond contributed generously to the Variety Club and other local charities, and helped to establish the BC Heart Foundation. Today, his family actively continues his philanthropic legacy.
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.
Arthur Erickson L.24849
One of Canada’s most highly regarded architects, Arthur Erickson, CC (1924-2009) left an enduring mark on Greater Vancouver, designing landmarks including the campus of Simon Fraser University, the Vancouver Law Courts, Robson Square, and the Museum of Anthropology. Erickson pioneered new ideas of city planning, and was a mentor to a generation of leading Vancouver architects and urbanists. Erickson was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1981, and in 1986 received the AIA Gold Medal.
Born in Riga, Latvia, Harry Adaskin, OC (1901-1994) studied at the Toronto Conservatory of Music and joined the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at the age of sixteen. Adaskin hosted several musical programs for CBC Radio, and was the inaugural head of the Department of Music at the University of British Columbia from 1946 to 1958, where he taught until his retirement in 1973.
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.
George Currie L.24046
Headquartered in Vancouver, MacMillan Bloedel was one of the largest forestry companies in the world. It was formed through the merger of three smaller forestry companies, in 1951 and 1959: the Powell River Company (est. 1908); Bloedel, Stewart and Welch (est. 1911); and H.R. MacMillan Export Company (est. 1919). George Currie was appointed Chairman of the company in 1974, having previously served as Executive Vice President of Finance. In 1999 MacMillan Bloedel was bought by Weyerhaeuser.
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.