This initial investigation into Modernism in Canadian photography begins with the first Toronto Camera Club Salon in 1903, and ends with the last Canadian International Salon that was held at the National Gallery of Canada in 1939. This also marks the year in which the National Film Board of Canada was established.
Although Modernist photography was not systematically institutionalized through the formation of societies and clubs in either Europe or North America, it was an international trend like Pictorialism. However, in Europe, the United States, Russia and Mexico, Modernist photography did not follow a simple evolutionary path, but was rather the result of diverse influences affecting specific sets of cultural circumstances. In Europe, for example, experimental, avant-garde movements such as Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Constructivism helped to shape the form of Modernist photography. In the United States, it was the Pictorialism of the Photo-Secessionists that provided both a well-established formal vocabulary and a critical framework from which departures were made into the language of Modernism. In New York, the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) started the Photo-Secession and tirelessly promoted photography as a medium of artistic expression, equal to painting, sculpture and the graphic arts, and he established important publishing and exhibition outlets for American and international photographers.