Paul-Émile Miot: Early Photographs of Newfoundland

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Paul-Émile Miot, Portrait of three Mi’kmaq women (1859), albumen print, Library and Archives Canada. Acquired with the assistance of a grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act (e004156473)

Some of the first photographs of life in Canada come not from the cameras of professional photographers, but from men tasked with recording data for land and water surveys and engineering projects. The work of Paul-Émile Miot is a case in point.

In the spring of 1857, Miot was a young French naval officer, making his first voyage to Canada. He travelled aboard the Ardent, under the command of Captain Georges-Charles Cloué, hydrographer at the Newfoundland Naval Station from 1849 to 1853.

Cloué knew of Miot’s skills as a naval officer, but was also impressed by his talents as a photographer. As a result, Cloué requested that Miot accompany him to Newfoundland, so that photography could be used in their hydrographic surveys. Their collaboration is now recognized as the first recorded instance of photography being employed as a tool for hydrography. In addition, Miot’s other photographs—of land, towns and people of the area—are believed to be some of the earliest ever made in Newfoundland, on Cape Breton Island, and on the French Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon.

As a child, Miot was sent to boarding school in Ireland. Following in his father’s footsteps, he later pursued a career in the French Navy, training at the École Navale in Paris from 1843 to 1849. In 1857, for taking charge of the Ceres after two-thirds of the crew had succumbed to typhoid on a return voyage from the West Indies, he was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, and was given the rank of Lieutenant. By 1881, he had risen to the rank of Vice-Admiral.

His work in the Navy included several areas of expertise, including surveying, hydrography, draughting and, of course, photography. Miot would have been taught how to draw as a part of his training at the naval college, and his grasp of composition and lighting are clearly evident in his photographs. Although his choice of subject matter was primarily driven by political and military demands, Miot also managed to create images that were aligned with artistic landscape conventions of the time.

By November of 1857, Miot was back in Paris, and some of his photographic images appeared as woodcuts in Le Monde Illustré on 10 April 1858, in Harper’s Weekly in 1858, and in Illustration on 19 March 1859. He returned to Newfoundland at least four more times, travelling there once a year between 1858 and1862.

In addition to photographing the Newfoundland coastline as part of his hydrographic survey work, Miot captured images of the cod-fishing industry, as well as portraits —including several studies of the Mi’Kmaq people—and river and forest scenes. Miot also travelled to a number of other countries, including Chile, Peru and Tahiti, were he made similar studies of the landscapes and local people. He finished his career working as a curator at the Musée de la Marine in Paris. 

Paul-Émile Miot: Early Photographs of Newfoundland is on view at the NGC in Gallery A102A from 4 October 2013 until 2 February 2014. The exhibition is organized and circulated by Library and Archives of Canada, in collaboration with the National Gallery  of Canada, and is part of a series showcasing nineteenth-century Canadian photographs from the collections of the Library and Archives Canada. It is curated by Lori Pauli, Associate Curator, Photographs Collection, National Gallery of Canada.

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