Arctic Images from the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Explorers and travellers have long been documenting their Arctic adventures in diaries, manuscripts, maps, sketches and watercolours. Their accounts portray the Arctic as a mystical land, whose inhabitants and way of life seem unspoiled, and this imagery was further disseminated to audiences abroad with the invention of the photograph.

The following photographs are part of the Arctic Images from the Turn of the Twentieth Century exhibition presented at the National Gallery of Canada. Featuring material from Library and Archives Canada’s collections, the exhibition showcases rarely seen images, which document photographers’ travels in the Canadian north. In many cases, these images present a romanticized view of the people and places.

One of the earliest images is this photograph of a hunter, taken by George Simpson McTavish while he was stationed at the Hudson’s Bay Company at Little Whale River, Quebec, in 1865.

Portrait of a hunter, a beluga, a seal skin “daw” (a buoy), and a kayak along the edge of the Little Whale River, Quebec. Photographer: George Simpson McTavish (MIKAN 3264747)

Portrait of a hunter, a beluga, a seal skin “daw” (a buoy), and a kayak along the edge of the Little Whale River, Quebec. Photographer: George Simpson McTavish (MIKAN 3264747)

The majority of photographers who ventured to the Arctic regions were men, and for the most part, were employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Canadian government. Geraldine Moodie was one of the few female photographers. She had a successful photography studio prior to moving north with her husband when he was posted to the North West Mounted Police station in Fullerton (Qatiktalik in Inuktitut), Nunavut. Her portrait of an Inuit widow and her children, taken around 1904, is a good example of her beautifully composed images.

Widow and her children, Nunavut, by Geraldine Moodie (MIKAN 3376416)

Widow and her children, Nunavut, by Geraldine Moodie (MIKAN 3376416)

The vast majority of photographs of Inuit emphasized the ethnological attitudes of the era by presenting them as “types,” such as this 1926 image of an unidentified man.

Unidentified man, Chesterfield Inlet (Igluligaarjuk), Nunavut, by Lachlan T. Burwash, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (MIKAN 3376543)

Unidentified man, Chesterfield Inlet (Igluligaarjuk), Nunavut, by Lachlan T. Burwash, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (MIKAN 3376543)

In other cases, Canadian government staff took photographs to highlight federal government initiatives and policies, such as this 1948 image of four women looking at a family allowance poster. Below it, also from Health and Welfare Canada’s Medical Services Branch, is the portrait of Bella Lyall-Wilcox carrying her baby sister, Betty Lyall-Brewster. Taken in 1949, the lighting and composition of this portrait link it aesthetically to the pictorial tradition of the majority of photographs in this exhibition.

Women looking at a family allowance poster, Baker Lake (Qamanittuaq), Nunavut, by unknown photographer, Health and Welfare Canada (MIKAN 3613868)

Women looking at a family allowance poster, Baker Lake (Qamanittuaq), Nunavut, by unknown photographer, Health and Welfare Canada (MIKAN 3613868)

Bella Lyall-Wilcox (left) and Betty Lyall-Brewster, Taloyoak (formerly Spence Bay), Nunavut, by Studio Norman, Health and Welfare Canada (MIKAN 3613832)

Bella Lyall-Wilcox (left) and Betty Lyall-Brewster, Taloyoak (formerly Spence Bay), Nunavut, by Studio Norman, Health and Welfare Canada (MIKAN 3613832)

The Arctic Images from the Turn of the Twentieth Century exhibition opened on March 14, 2014, and will continue until September 1, 2014, at the National Gallery of Canada. For more information about LAC’s photographic collections portraying Inuit and the Arctic, visit our Project Naming web page.

Where art and history meet: exhibitions of historical photographs at the National Gallery of Canada

What happens when the practical also has a poetic side?

In recent months, visitors to the National Gallery of Canada have had a chance to explore the answer to this question. A series of small exhibitions of historical photographs, drawn from Library and Archives Canada’s collection, considers the aesthetic, as well as the documentary properties of images created “on-the-job” by 19th-century surveyors, public servants and engineers.

In the heart of the Rocky Mountains: A snowstorm, by Charles Horetzky

In the heart of the Rocky Mountains: A snowstorm, by Charles Horetzky (Source: MIKAN 3264251, e011067226)

At first glance, this beautiful photograph, which was part of the past exhibition Early Exploration Photographs in Canada, seem to be exactly as labelled — a view of the Peace River in British Columbia, as it appeared during a snowstorm in October 1872. It turns out, however, that Charles Horetzky, official photographer with Sir Sandford Fleming’s Canadian Pacific Railway survey team, deliberately enhanced its dramatic effect: paint splatters were added to the image in order to create the effect of non-existent snow.

The current exhibition, Paul-Émile Miot: Early Photographs of Newfoundland, on view until February 2, 2014, includes this portrait from the 1800s, by French naval officer Paul-Émile Miot.

Mi’kmaq man, by Paul-Émile Miot

Mi’kmaq man, by Paul-Émile Miot (Source: MIKAN: 3535989, e011076347)

It was taken while surveying and mapping the coastal areas of Newfoundland — at the time, France maintained a commercial fishing interest in these waters. Though Miot was capturing the earliest known photographs of members of the Mi’kmaq Nation, the extravagant pose of his subject suggests 19th-century European romanticism.

So-called inaccuracies or created effects in 19th-century documentary photographs do not negate the worth of these images as records of past events. If anything, they add fascinating nuances of meaning to these items, as artifacts.

We invite you to stay tuned for the next exhibition, on Arctic exploration photography, opening on February 7, 2014.

The Working Process of Arnaud Maggs

Did you know that the Arnaud Maggs: Identification exhibition, which is currently taking place at the National Gallery of Canada, includes several items from Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) collection? Our materials in this exhibition are used to emphasize the artist’s working process and strategies.

In fact, Library and Archives Canada holds the Arnaud Maggs fonds, which follows Maggs’s professional career, from his time as a prize-winning graphic designer and commercial and fashion photographer to his later work exploring portraiture. In addition to finding examples of the artist’s drawings, prints, paintings, watercolours and photographs, LAC‘s archival source materials allow you to discover his artistic process, including such items as the artist’s notebooks and contact sheets from which he selected the best portraits.

Arnaud Maggs, one of Canada’s foremost photographers and artists, was born in Montréal in 1926. He was awarded the Scotiabank Photography Award in 2012, one of Canada’s most prestigious photography prizes.

The exhibition runs until September 16, 2012.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!