Images of the Frigid Zone

Robert Flaherty, Two Women and One Child with Filming Equipment, Baffin Island (c. 1913–14), negative copy of lantern slide. Library and Archives Canada, a114227. © The Robert and Frances Flaherty Study Centre, Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, CA

When Robert Flaherty set out from Newfoundland in 1913, on his third expedition to the Canadian North, he carried with him provisions and equipment for 11 men and 19 months, including prospecting drills, dynamite, fishing tackle, guns, still and movie cameras, 450 kilos of photographic chemicals, 7,600 metres of film, and 2,000 glass plates. It took three days to unload the ship at Baffin Island.

At the time, Flaherty was working as a prospector and surveyor, commissioned by railway baron Sir William Mackenzie to explore the east coast of Hudson Bay for iron-ore deposits. But he was also a gifted photographer and budding filmmaker with an interest in the Inuit way of life. During his four Mackenzie expeditions, from 1910 to 1916, Flaherty took close to a thousand photographs. Later, he would become famous for Nanook of the North (1922), considered the first documentary film ever.   

Flaherty is one of the 14 photographers featured in Arctic Images from the Turn of the Twentieth Century, a fascinating exhibition of some 30 photographs and albums from the collection of Library and Archives Canada. Currently on view at the National Gallery, it is the third in a series of exhibitions that the NGC and LAC are doing together.

From the times of early exploration, the Arctic, with its awe-inspiring icebergs, barren landscapes and intrepid peoples, has excited the imagination. Painters such as Caspar David Friedrich, Frederic Edwin Church, Rockwell Kent and Lawren Harris have rendered it as a region of austere, sublime and often dangerous beauty. With the advent of photography, not only artists, but also explorers and researchers, could use the medium to express their many different experiences and visions.

It is these varied approaches to the subject matter of the North that Andrea Kunard wished to show in Arctic Images. “Some of these photographers were government workers going on expeditions related to sovereignty, or for geological or geographic surveys,” says Kunard, the Gallery’s Associate Curator of Photographs, and organizer of the exhibition. “Others were whalers. Still others had a personal interest or curiosity.”

All were outsiders, descending upon a fragile environment at a time when many Europeans thought the land was theirs for the taking. “Of course, this is a western, non-Aboriginal point of view,” Kunard adds, “so it’s loaded with all kinds of pre-determined stereotypes.” She hastens to add that the subjects were not victims of the photographer: “They had something to say about how they were depicted. They knew what the camera was, and they also knew that they could stand in front of it and show they were proud hunters.” 

Flaherty’s Two women (one with child) with filming equipment, taken during his 1913 Baffin Island trip and shown on a touchscreen in the exhibition space, is a wonderful image of old meets new: three Inuit subjects dressed in traditional fur clothing standing with a tripod and camera case. His romantic style situates him in the Pictorialist tradition that was fashionable at the time, Kunard says. “He masterfully manipulated light and shadow to render the Inuit, their land, even their dogs, as existing in a world outside of modern life. Flaherty was such an iconoclast. He was very self-promoting, but intensely interested in photography.”

Geraldine Moodie, Inuit Widow and Children (1904–05), silver gelatin print. Library and Archives Canada, e006581106

Women too had their fingers on the shutter release, as demonstrated here by the work of Geraldine Moodie and Edith Watson. Moodie, the granddaughter of Susanna Moodie—author of the iconic Roughing it in the Bush—was initially a watercolour painter. After taking up photography, she established three successful commercial studios in Saskatchewan in the 1890s, making portraits of the local European settlers and First Peoples. Then, in 1904, she joined her husband, a North-West Mounted Police officer, on his posting in the eastern Arctic. Her images of Inuit mothers and children standing in her makeshift studio are infused with Victorian ideas of motherhood and child-rearing.

For Edith Watson, the people and landscapes of Newfoundland and Labrador were a favourite subject. Watson had first left her Connecticut home in 1880, at the age of 19, for a two-week trip around Massachusetts with her donkey Jaffa. Her wanderlust never ceased. Making a living at first as a painter, she turned to photography in the early 1890s, and for the next forty years, spent her summers travelling across Canada by foot, dog cart, horseback, bus, steamship, sailboat and railroad, laden with heavy photographic equipment and developing her photographs in streams along the way.

Watson’s small handmade album in the exhibition is open at two images made in Labrador in August 1913. In one, an iceberg floats like a shark fin on the open sea. In the other, taken at the mission settlement in Hopedale, a family stands in front of a clapboard house, their dog basking in the summer warmth.

Edith S. Watson, View of Iceberg (1913), from Edith S. Watson album, 1913, silver gelatin print. Library and Archives Canada, e010791414

Other photographers featured in Arctic Images include A.A. Chesterfield and George Simpson McTavish, both of whom worked in the North for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and Leo Jackman, a medical attendant on an HBC steamer, who kept a diary and photograph album of his experiences. Expedition photographers Robert Bell and A.P. Low were employed by the Geological Survey of Canada, and Thomas Mitchell was a photographer for the 1875–1876 British Arctic Expedition that was trying to reach the North Pole and the Open Polar Sea. George Lancefield was the photographer on a ship travelling to the Arctic Archipelago in 1906 to proclaim Canadian sovereignty. George Comer was a celebrated whaler, ethnologist, cartographer and author.

It was out of “a desire, which had become uncontrollable . . . to study Nature under the terrible aspects of the Frigid Zone,” that Boston artist William Bradford chartered a steamer in 1869 and headed for Baffin Island and Melville Bay, Greenland. His book Arctic Regions, on display in a vitrine, is considered a gem of photographic history.

Few of the subjects in these photographs are named, so the portrait of Bella Lyall-Wilcox and her baby sister Betty Lyall Brewster, stands out. It is part of the Project Naming program, launched by LAC in 2004 to engage the Inuit community in identifying the thousands of photographs of Inuit in its collection. To date, 1,700 people have been identified. 

For Andrea Kunard, this exhibition of early 20th-century photographs is highly relevant to the 21st-century viewer. “It allows visitors to appreciate the many ways in which photography has depicted the Inuit and their land, and how these different visions inform our ongoing relationship with the North.”

Arctic Images from the Turn of the Twentieth Century is on view at the NGC in Gallery A102a until September 1, 2014.

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