For decades, St. Jacobs-based photographer David Hunsberger chronicled the people and places of Waterloo Region through the lens of a camera.Coming from a Mennonite background, much of his work focused on the old-order community, a subject seldom captured because of their aversion to being photographed.
“For 40 years, David Hunsberger’s camera was present at special occasions and ordinary days in the lives of Waterloo Region Mennonites,” said Laureen Harder-Gissing, an archivist with the University of Waterloo’s Conrad Grebel University College (CGUC). “His love of his craft and of his subjects comes through in every frame. His collection continues to be a source of discovery and delight for anyone seeking a window into our shared local history.”
After David passed away in 2005, the Hunsberger family donated some 5,700 of his photographs to the Mennonite Archives of Ontario.
Now, the collection is being shared with the public at Grebel in an exhibit called “Taking Community from the Farm to the World,” held at its Waterloo campus through April.
A collaboration between CGUC, the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, the Institute of Anabaptist Mennonite Studies and the Hunsberger family, the gallery provides a unique glimpse at Mennonite life in the region through the 20th century.
“Photographs are a moment frozen in time,” Harder-Gissing said. “And because of the eye that (Hunsberger) had, I think they are still very relatable today; we can still look at his photographs and find connections into this other world and find connections into the past. The other thing too, is because he was a photographer here in this area and the exhibit is here in the region, people might see themselves in these pictures, literally. In fact we’ve had a couple of instances of that already and that’s the fun part, to find out the stories within the stories in these photographs.”
The son of Noah, a minister at the Erb Street Mennonite Church for many years, and Minnie Hunsberger, David was born in 1928 in Kitchener. When he was 14 years old, the family moved to St. Jacobs, where he would spend the next 55 years, marrying Katherine Nafziger in 1956 and raising three sons and one daughter.
As a professional photographer, Hunsberger shot family portraits, weddings, special events like barn-raisings as well as commercial pictures.
Self-taught, Hunsberger is recognized for his ability to make his subjects feel at ease, lending to more natural looking images.
“It is important to note that these photographs were taken during a time of transition for Mennonites in Ontario; a time when more and more Mennonites pursued their vocational callings in towns and cities,” said Michelle Jackett, an instructor of peace and conflict studies at CGUC. “This was also a time when new institutions such as Conrad Grebel University College and the Mennonite Savings and Credit Union were first envisioned, and a time when there was a new awareness of the diversity of the global Mennonite church community. … His years as a professional photographer coincided with many debates among Mennonites as to what was appropriate for Mennonite dress, and what sort of technology was acceptable in Mennonite homes.”
The exhibit is comprised of three parts, Jackett said. “In the Mennonite Archives of Ontario gallery (third floor), David Hunsberger’s photographs of transitional moments in Ontario Mennonite life are complimented with commentary from Sam Steiner’s new book, In Search of Promised Lands. In the Milton Good Library (third floor), the archives exhibit continues in the display cases beside the circulation desk and Hunsberger’s book, Barn Raising, is available. In the Grebel Gallery (fourth floor), high quality prints of photographs are displayed on themes of peace and community.”
The exhibit of Taking the Community from the Farm to the World runs through April 30 at the Conrad Grebel building on the University of Waterloo campus. The gallery is free of charge, open Monday to Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 1 to 5 p.m. A reception is being held February 27 at 7 p.m. to celebrate the opening; the public is welcome to attend.