Early Exploration Photographs in Canada


Unknown photographer, Sergeant Kay’s Royal Engineers survey camp on North Antler Creek (1873), albumen print, Library and Archives Canada

In mid-nineteenth-century Canada, expansion was in the air. Industry, strengthened by a flurry of railway building, was eager to exploit the vast resources of the Interior. Young farmers, unable to find land in the East, looked to the West to establish their own homesteads. In response to these needs, as well as a fear of northern expansion by the United States, Canadian and British governments sent numerous exploration expeditions into the Interior to determine its resource potential and suitability for settlement.

Photography was used in many cases: both the cumbersome wet-plate collodion process that required the transportation of chemicals and glass plates, and later in the 1870s, the more expedient dry-plate process. At the time, these images were seen as practical additions to government reports. Now they are cherished as invaluable records of the peoples and lands of the Northwest, just prior to the enormous changes spurred by nation building, settler colonization, and commerce.

Early Exploration Photographs in Canada, drawn from the extensive collection of Library and Archives Canada, presents photography from several expeditions. The earliest, by Humphrey Lloyd Hime, were produced during the 1858 Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Exploratory Expedition, which was charged with assessing the geology, meteorology, and agricultural potential of the area near present-day Winnipeg.

Another group, taken during the North American Boundary Commission (1858–1862 and 1872–1875) by the British Corps of Royal Engineers, shows the team marking the country’s southern boundaries at the 49th parallel. Photographs associated with the 1871 and 1878–1879 Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) surveys, taken by Benjamin Baltzly and Georges Dawson respectively, are also on display. The GSC sent numerous teams into the Interior in search of not only geological specimens, but also samples of flora, fauna and Aboriginal artifacts. Yet other photographs by Charles Horetzky were taken during the Canadian Pacific Railway Surveys (1871–1879) to determine the best route for the transcontinental railway.

Although the images were intended to provide documentary information, many also function as subjective interpretations of lands and peoples little understood by the explorers. In the case of the 1858 expedition, the party’s leader, Henry Youle Hind, wished to be seen as a practical scientist and adventurous explorer. In his published accounts of the expedition, he mixes a flair for drama with religious fervour, all the while maintaining an infrangible faith in Victorian notions of progress.

Hime’s photographs also vary widely in their intent. In “The prairie, looking west,” the inclusion of a human skull imbues the scene with the spectre of death. “The Prairie, on the banks of Red River, looking south” has the opposite effect; its depiction of newly ploughed land provides evidence of the success of Victorian husbandry. Other images, ranging from “exotic” depictions of Aboriginal residents to stark portrayals of churches and local residences, affirm the complex intermixing of Aboriginal and European cultures.

The capacity of photography to speak to a number of concerns can be seen in other works in the exhibition. Benjamin Baltzly, in the employ of William Notman of Montréal, took photographs with an eye to both their commercial and scientific value. Yet many of his images also depict a sublime and romanticized nature, in keeping with his religious and artistic nature. 

Charles Horetzky was more ambitious. Contemptuous of his role as a photographer, he wished to be seen as an exploratory engineer. Challenging Chief Engineer Sir Sandford Fleming, he vociferously promoted the Pine Pass over Fleming’s favoured Yellowhead Pass as the best route through the mountains. His route rejected, Horetzky published a treatise denouncing Fleming. Yet in spite of his choleric spirit, Horetzky could look upon the shifting moods of landscape with reverent awe, and describe their elemental forces with poetic force and humility.

George Dawson was more even-tempered. An indefatigable explorer, scientist, and photographer, Dawson served as a naturalist and geologist on the 1872 Boundary Commission survey, producing well-received reports on the geology, natural history, and geography of the Prairies. He was also an ethnologist and anthropologist with a special interest in the Haida, photographing their villages and studying their language. While travelling in the West, Dawson sent many artifacts and specimens back East, laying the foundations for collections at major institutions in Ottawa and Montreal, such as the Museum of Nature, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and McGill University.


Early Exploration Photographs in Canada is on view at the NGC until 29 September 2013

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