Benzion Shapira: The Eye of the North End

August 12, 2022

                                                                                             BENZION SHAPIRA

                                                                              THE EYE OF THE NORTH END

                                                                                                   1894 – 1967

Anybody who was anybody got their photo taken at Shapira’s

Unknown source

Shapira, Klein, Smith and Derechin were photographers on Selkirk Avenue.

They would put pictures of wedding parties in the windows. Sunday afternoon it was very common to walk on one side of the street to check out all the pictures, and then to cross over to the other side of the street. It was a routine walk for everybody.

Sue (Kneller) Juravsky

In short, let it (photography) be the secretary and clerk of whoever needs absolute factual exactitude in his profession…Let it rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books, prints, and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose form is dissolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory – it will be thanked and applauded. But if it be allowed to encroach upon the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man’s soul, then it will be so much the worse for us.

Charles Baudelaire

 Humanity has also invented, in its evening peregrinations that is to say, in the nineteenth century – the symbol of memory: it has invented what had seemed impossible: it has invented a mirror that remembers.

It has invented photography.

  Ernest Hello

 A few years ago, the Marion and Ed Vickar Jewish Museum had on display a camera from Shapira’s studio which was on loan from the Manitoba Museum. In an interview with Myron Love, the late author Sheldon Oberman stated that his mother knew the man who had bought the studio following Shapira’s passing and suggested he take the equipment that was still in the space. Oberman noted: “Laurie Block and I went in his truck and took out two loads of stuff…The camera was so big that I dismantled it and put it into my parents’ basement. I eventually gave it to the museum (Manitoba Museum) and forgot about it.” The camera in question consists of three square mahogany frames with bellows in between, made of canvas. The back was movable which allowed Shapira to slide in “film holders” that were ten inches square.

 The Shapira in Oberman’s account was Benzion Shapira. Born in Istanbul, Turkey in 1894, Shapira came to Winnipeg where in 1911 he set up a photo studio at 220 Main. Shortly thereafter he moved to Main and Logan where he remained for two years. In 1915 Shapira once again relocated, this time to the Fairbairn Block on the corner of Main and Selkirk. Shapira’s services were in great demand. A rapidly expanding Jewish community abounded with family activities, with the playing out of life cycle rituals (births, marriages, and deaths) and organizational events and Shapira was there to create a visual testimony of the elements, circumstances and occurrences which captured the history of a community in the making. Shapira moved his studio to 228 Selkirk Avenue in the heart of the Jewish community. He became the “eye of the North End”.

 That the Israelite Press advertised his business as “Shapira’s Art Studio” could lead one to believe that he did not distinguish art from photography (in contradistinction to Baudelaire). Photographers who blur the lines that separate art and photography seek to create images which while grounded in the circumstances of everyday life can evoke emotions and capture the imagination of the viewer and can transcend the limitations of time and space and speak to future generations.

 For those interested in acquiring a deeper appreciation of local Jewish history it is well worth the effort to reference Shapira’s photos. Shapira’s body of work captured virtually aspect of the Winnipeg Jewish reality. Reflected in them are the vicissitudes of everyday life, of the customs and traditions of a Winnipeg Jewish community that was seeking to negotiate and define its identity in the context of Canadian civil and political society. Photographs can convey moments frozen in time which capture lifestyles, fashions, recreation, family and intergenerational relations, the world of technology, political events, etc. But one must look at them with a critical perspective, which means to be able to “read them” by amalgamating questions of technique, the artistic and social sensibilities of the photographer, an understanding of the social, historical, and psychological forces at play in the respective images and to draw comparisons with the present.

 Shapira’s obituary, published in the Jewish Post and News, noted that he was a member of the Photographers Association of America and for fifteen years served on the executive of the Hebrew Sick Benefit Association, and was involved in other organizations. The Jewish Heritage Centre archives holds a fairly sizeable collection of Shapira photos as well as other photographers such as Diamond, Derechin and Charach, to name a few. They encompass a wide range of events, organizations and personalities and provide researchers with an important tool in understanding the social and cultural history of Winnipeg Jewry.

 Suggested reading:

 Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations.

  New York: Schocken Books, 1969

 Benjamin, Walter. “Photography” in The Arcades Project. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of

  Harvard University Press,2002

 Carbone, Stanislao. “The Dialogic Museum” in Canadian Ethnic Studes, Vol. 37, No.1, Spring


 Love, Myron. “Old Camera brings back memories for noted children’s author” Jewish Post &

  News, November 26, 1997, p.6

 The Israelite Press, “Ad for Shapira’s Art Studio”, September 27, 1916