Afterimage: Tod Ainslie’s Vision of the War of 1812

On the conflict’s bicentennial, the experiences of the War of 1812 are evoked in this showcase of 21st century photographs


(Toronto, Ontario, May 7, 2012) - On the eve of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) proudly presents Afterimage: Tod Ainslie’s Vision of the War of 1812.  These evocative photographs, documenting many of the War’s historically significant sites, were taken between 2001 and 2009 by Burlington-based Tod Ainslie using three pinhole cameras that he designed and built. The 22 photographic works are displayed from Saturday, June 2, 2012 to Sunday, February 24, 2013 in the ROM’s Wilson Canadian Heritage Exhibition Room of the Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada, located on Level 1 of the Weston Family Wing.

Dr. Arlene Gehmacher, Curator of Canadian Paintings, Prints & Drawings in the ROM’s World Cultures department is the exhibition’s curator.  She says, “The power of Tod Ainslie’s photographs lies in the tension from the blurring of lines between the documentary and the aesthetic.  The photographs capture the physical sites themselves, yes, but through their framing, angles of vision, or technical distortions, they transcend the documentary. We are compelled to engage with them. Placid, haunting, at times direct, the images can be subtly disconcerting as they call up imagined moments and experiences of a war in the not-so-distant past.”

Photographer Tod Ainslie states, “As I worked with these primitive cameras and saw the images they produced, I felt a strong sense of the period's aura, a sense of the places themselves, and an empathy for the people whose energies created them.”  

WAR OF 1812

Frustrated by imposed trade sanctions, the United States of America declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812. For the next two-and-a-half years, army regulars, a militia of locals of various racial and cultural origins, and First Nations warriors engaged in fierce battle throughout eastern North America. When peace was proclaimed on February 18, 1815, the geopolitical landscape was restored to its pre-war state.


The photographs of Afterimage, using a medium not available in 1812, create a 21st century showcase of war sites - restorations included - as they exist today. The absence of figures and the images’ aesthetic qualities transform the scenes. Permeated by anachronistic complexity, the photographs become resonant spaces of reflection, commemorating lives lived or lost during the War of 1812.  Over nine years, Tod Ainslie traversed eastern North America, taking approximately 2,000 photographs.  The ROM has purchased 25 of these images for its collection and 22 have been selected for this exhibition.

Each image is augmented by information on the photographed location. Visitors will discover the significance of such sites as Fort Meigs in Perrysburg, Ohio; the Octagonal Blockhouse, on Coteau-du-Lac on the St. Lawrence River, 40 kilometres southwest of Montreal; and York (now Toronto, Canada's largest city), invaded and twice burned by the Americans in 1813

The exhibit is no mere history lesson on the facts of the War of 1812.  Afterimage is framed by a section explaining Ainslie’s use of the cameras he built himself, and each photograph is accompanied by technical information allowing the visitor to understand some of the aesthetic choices Ainslie has made in order to create his evocative images.


Burlington-based Tod Ainslie was born in 1945 in Nassau, Bahamas. He is a practicing documentary pinhole photographer of historical sites and architecture, using cameras he designed and constructed.  Particularly interested in the War of 1812, Ainslie has shown photographs of its sites in juried shows, demonstrations, and galleries, often being awarded for his work. His photographs are also found in a number of private collections.  He has guest lectured at both Ryerson University and Doors Open (Fort York) and taught art and photography.  Tod Ainslie has a Bachelor of Art Education from Eastern Michigan University and an Honours Specialist (Visual Arts) from the University of Toronto.

In his images, Ainslie strove to evoke the experiences of those who lived through the War of 1812. His photographs are, in his words, “Daguerre-like”, similar to what may have been produced at that time had the chemical technology been available. To achieve this style, Ainslie made use of the simplest possible apparatus – the pinhole camera. Essentially a closed box, one side of the camera is pierced by a tiny aperture through which rays of light enter and imprint the scene on a negative placed within.

The apparent simplicity of the pinhole camera belies the complexity of Ainslie’s process. Three different pinhole cameras were built by Ainslie, each allowing for various aesthetic effects as dictated by a particular site’s atmospheric conditions. Choices were made as to camera, its position relative to the subject, its focal length, and length of exposure. In the darkroom, Ainslie manipulated the light and cropped his images to create his desired effects.  


The bicentennial of War of 1812 is marked by another display at the ROM:  Sovereign Allies/Living Cultures: First Nations of the Great Lakes opens on July 14, 2012 in the Daphne Cockwell Gallery Canada First Peoples on Level 1 of the Museum’s Hilary and Galen Weston Wing. Following two main themes, the exhibit provides a First Nations perspective on the Anglo-American wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including the War of 1812. It also examines the way in which First Nations are represented in contemporary museums. Video presentations effectively augment the display’s approximately 100 artifacts.

Programming complements Afterimage’s engagement at the ROM. On Tuesday, May 8, in an illustrated presentation entitled “1812: The Big Picture”, Dr. Carl Benn, author of The War of 1812 (2002), explores the War’s complex origins, confused campaigns, and misunderstood conclusions to clarify the course of the conflict and its larger historical meanings. A presentation of the ROM and Toronto Heritage, this FREE talk takes place in the ROM’s Signy & Cléophée Eaton Theatre. Pre-registration is required at  On Friday, June 8, two renowned scholars debate the motion “The US has coveted Canada since the War of 1812”.  The arguments of Stephen Clarkson and Jack Granatstein are moderated by Michael Bliss. The debate, taking place at Koerner Hall in the TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, is part of Luminato. More information and tickets are available at  Visit for additional details on programming highlighting the bicentennial of the War of 1812.

Afterimage: Tod Ainslie’s Vision of the War of 1812 is included with paid general ROM admission. Visit for information on this and other exciting events at the ROM.