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Patricia Holden Collins
Patricia Holden Collins

Patricia Holden Collins was groundbreaking wartime photographer Add to ...

Actor David Niven called her Blue Eyes. General Dwight Eisenhower, then leading the Allied war effort in Europe, posed for her – the first time he’d been shot by a professional female photographer.

And she was one of only six photographers allowed inside Westminster Abbey to cover the 1947 wedding of The Queen and Prince Philip. After the ceremony, young Pat Holden climbed onto a building ledge high above Trafalgar Square to capture the panoramic scene – the cheering throngs greeting the royal couple as they made their way to Buckingham Palace.

It was with that same adventurous spirit that, five years earlier, the 18-year-old Holden had fudged her age and enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces. So that her British birth records would not be checked, she told recruiters that she’d been born on what was then the Nazi-occupied Isle of Guernsey.

In an age that would now find the absence of women in any camera pool puzzling, Holden’s achievement might get short shrift. But at the time, it was a rare event.

Eisenhower – meeting in London with Air Vice-Marshal Robert Leckie – was so struck by the novelty of a female professional that he asked to meet the young shooter, and later autographed the picture.

One afternoon, in April, 1945, working on the photo desk, Holden received a call from a colleague in Germany. “Don’t leave,” he told her. “I’m sending you material you’ll want to see.”

The ensuing package contained the first incredible photographs of newly liberated Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp, where the naked bodies of emaciated victims – among them, doubtless, the corpse of Anne Frank, who had died there only days before – lay stacked by the thousands. Holden later called it the most memorable event of her career.

“It was horrible when those photos surfaced,” she later recalled. “That will stay with me forever. We stayed late that night to develop the negatives.”

Patricia Mary (Holden) Collins died on Nov. 26 of heart failure at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital. She was 87.

But for all her professional distinctions, says her son, Terry Collins, “What truly defined her in life was her profound success as a wife, mother, grandmother and friend to so many.”

Born Aug. 28, 1924, in Wallasey, across the Mersey River from Liverpool, she was the second eldest child of Arnold and Dorothy Holden. To escape the German aerial bombardment, she came with her mother and younger brother, Larry, to Canada in the fall of 1939 when she was 15.

After a short period in Montreal, her mother returned to England, where she worked with MI5, scrutinizing the mail for letters written in code. Her father, wounded in the First World War when three machine gun bullets passed through his arm, was then serving in the Home Guard. Patricia and Larry went on to Winnipeg.

In a video produced at her final home, Sunnybrook’s veteran’s wing, she remembered standing with two friends outside an army recruitment centre, when three young men went in to enlist. On the spot, the women decided to join them, “as a way to meet boys.”

Instead, she recalled, she was posted to the Women’s Manning Depot – an all-female unit. “I’ll never meet a man,” she thought. Thus, when someone asked for volunteers to learn aerial photography in a co-ed environment, she grabbed the opportunity.

Trained during a 12-week course at Rockcliffe Air Station in Ottawa, she spent a year shooting air force graduating classes, and was then posted overseas. “That was like falling on my feet,” she said.

From London, Holden covered military weddings, funerals and medal presentations, but was also dispatched – with her Speed Graphic press camera – to photograph scenes of London’s war-time destruction. She eventually rose to the rank of sergeant.

“I think she took the whole thing as an adventure,” says Larry Holden, her brother. “She was gifted with being able to get on with people. She made automatic friends.”

With demobilization in 1945, Holden returned briefly to Canada. At a party in Ottawa, she met Flight Lieutenant Arthur Collins, a former Spitfire and Mustang pilot who had specialized in reconnaissance photography (winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and, in 2004, the French Legion of Honour). A whirlwind romance ensued.

But then her beau was sent to Winnipeg to work in air force public relations, while Holden won a London-based job with Reuters. There, she shot visiting celebrities (in addition to Niven, she met Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, Shirley Temple and other American movie stars), fashion shows and Royal Family events.

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