Born on June 4, 1928, David L. Hunsberger was the first of two children (the other being a daughter named Grace) born to Noah and Minnie Hunsberger. He would join a family already comprised on two additional step-brothers named Paul and John from his father's previous marriage. Being part of a fair-sized family and with his father bringing in low wages with his work as a minister for Erb Street Mennonite Church in Waterloo (Conrad Grebel University College 2009), it was clear from a young age that David would have to fend for himself. When he announced his intentions to become a photographer to his parents, they were quite concerned, telling him he could not support a family on the wages he could earn from such a career.
Nonetheless, David's dreams of becoming a photographer could not be shaken. Unable originally to own his own camera, he would borrow one from a neighbour and travel with it everywhere. This passion for photography would eventually lead to freelance work for papers like the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and magazines like McClean's, where he submitted photos for an article by the well-known local author, Edna Staebler. Having moved with his family to St. Jacobs (Conrad Grebel University College 2009), a stronghold of the Mennonite community including the Old Order Mennonites who followed a more traditional agrarian way of life, he would have much more interesting subject matter. It was thus during this time that David gradually began to build his portfolio of Mennonites for which he largely later would be remembered.
While freelance photography allowed David to express his artistic tendencies, he also had a practical side, however. As a means of paying the bills, he would also take a course in book-keeping, later landing a job with BF Goodrich. This was important, since in 1956 he married Katherine Nafziger, with whom he would have four children, first Peter, then Robert, then Fred and finally Kristine.
Unwilling to forgo his dream of being a photographer, however, he continued to take photography work on the side. Starting out with wedding photos, he would later get catalogue work for Home Hardware. At the same time, he would continue his freelance work, taking pictures for instance for agricultural and veterinarian journals of subject matters like prize bulls and two-legged pigs.
Eventually, David's work as a photographer would become significant enough that he would be able to dedicate himself to it full-time. Moving from a small house across from the St. Jacob's Mennonite Church to a larger one once used by a plumber from where he had run his business, David was able to establish a studio in the basement of his new home.
While a hard worker, David would operate under unusual hours. Starting the day typically around ten o'clock, moments after arising from bed, he would work for a couple of hours and then proceed down to the local post-office where he would visit for three to four hours before coming home to commence working again until dinner time. Following dinner, though, he would retreat to the darkroom where he would develop pictures, painstakingly undertaking photographic techniques like dodging and burning until he achieved the desired effect.
It was this interesting combination of patience to get exactly the right shot combined with a keen and active interest in his community that was the secret to David's success. Supportive of this is how, when asked to describe the quality which, as some have noted, makes his photographs so distinctive, one of his children Fred who has followed in his father's footsteps and also become a photographer has stated, "There's an intimacy about them…There was a kind of an understanding…I think it was because he knew the Mennonite community. There was a certain amount of trust there. It wasn't like an outsider coming in." Moreover, he added, "There was a feeling that there is a background story. That was always the starting point. He had the persistence to go back and try to capture that feeling."
Indeed, the strong sense of connectedness of David's pictures to the community around him was reflected for visitors to his gallery called the "Laughing Horse Gallery" that he would later establish in the basement of his home in St. Jacobs. (The name, it is interesting to note, being taken from one of David's pictures of horse showing its teeth after taking a drink of water from a cold stream). In addition to the usual tourists that would come to admire and buy his work, many of the Old Order Mennonites would come in to reminisce about the people they recognized in the photos.
Undoubtedly it was largely David's connection to the Mennonite community that enabled him to take so many photos of them, with having one's photograph taken being linked to the forbidden sin of pride or vanity. Having his father as a former minister helped also, causing many of the Mennonites, who lived in the area around St. Jacobs, to trust him enough to allow him to take photos of them. However, he often was careful to take photos in a less obtrusive manner. As an example of this, he would use a twin lense rolley to take pictures without having to bring the camera up to his face and a sound of a shutter closing. His work with the Mennonites would eventually be brought together in a book documenting their way of life called "People apart: Portrait of a Mennonite world in Waterloo County, Ontario" (Hunsberger, Hertel et al. 1977).
David took more than photos of Mennonites, however. Later in life in particular he would branch out into nature photography. As Fred said, "When you went out for a walk and he had his camera, you could just pretty much forget about it. Because he'd be on his belly, photographing something." Fortunately, his wife Katherine was fond of reading, so the two of them were able to spend many days together outdoors.
This love of nature is something that David would pass along to his children, whether that was through cave exploring, hiking the Bruce Trail, or simply exploring their own community such as by walking along the Millrace Trail that runs along the Conestogo River in St. Jacobs. While not realizing it at the time, one of his children would later note that he was passing along to them a sense of the spirituality of nature. For although a member of St. Jacobs Mennonite Church who sometimes even played albeit somewhat non-traditional songs for the church on the piano (a tendency probably derived from his love of jazz), he derived his greatest sense of spirituality from the outdoors.
Interestingly, the pictures he took for his nature photography were mostly done in colour, while the photos of Mennonites were mainly done in black-and-white. It was not that he had a hard-and-fast rule about doing the Mennonite photos this way, but they tended to be more successful when done in this manner.
A member of the Professional Photographers of Ontario, David would receive many awards for his pictures. Although receiving some for his commercial work, the majority by far were received for his artistic photos. Given that, as others who knew him realized, he desired to be known as an artist, one can fairly safely assume that he derived great satisfaction from these awards.
By the 1990's, photography had changed so much that many of the types of photos David was able to take with his more sophisticated cameras (like the Hasselblad) could be taken with more popular types of cameras. As though thinking that he had accomplished everything he had wanted to do with the camera, he took to learning how to manipulate pictures that he had already taken on the computer. He even in later years took up bookkeeping again to help his children, as though that career which had helped him get started early in life would prove of use to him once again as he neared the end. By this time, the gallery had been moved to the St. Jacobs Country Mill during the early 1980s, where it was run by his wife and son Robert until 1996, and the studio had been moved to the City of Waterloo in 1986, where mainly his children mainly managed it until around 2000 when it was closed.
Faceoff Captured by Hunsberger
Finally, on January 6, 2005, at the age of 76 years, David L. Husberger would pass away at Grand River Hospital. Reflective of the great spirituality he derived from nature is a quote made in his obituary, which reads, "What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?" (Matthew 11:7)
In looking back, the bulk of the work that David is remembered for was taken between the 1960's and 1980's. In later years, his family would donate a large portion of this work to photographic collections like the Mennonite Archives of Ontario. This was done not only in hopes that the public could help better identify some of the photos he had taken, but by way of giving back to the community for what they had given him.
Conrad Grebel University College (2009). David L. Hunsberger Collection. Waterloo ON: Retrieved May 14, 2009 at http://grebel.uwaterloo.ca/mao/slidecollections/HM10.28.htm
Hunsberger, D. L., J. Hertel, et al. (1977). People apart: Portrait of a Mennonite world in Waterloo County, Ontario
. St. Jacobs, ON: Sand Hills Books.
Hunsberger, Fred, pers. comm., May 8, 2009
Hunsberger, Robert, pers. comm., May 5, 2009.
Alisa McClurg is a graduate of the Master's Program in the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo. Also holding undergraduate degrees in Environmental Resources and Honours English, her interests span the environment, health and social justice issues and their relationship to planning.