Author Tags: First Nations, Photography
Having worked in the Anthropology Audio Visual Collection of the Royal BC Museum for 35 years, and as its collections manager for two decades, Dan Savard has written academic papers and given many illustrated presentations on topics related to photography and First Peoples. His first book, Images from the Likeness House (Royal BC Museum 2010), explores the relationship between First Peoples in (mainly) BC, as well as Alaska and Washington State, and the photographers who made these images from the late 1850s to the 1920s. It won the 2011 Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize.
Known as “photographic artists,” photographers often travelled far from their studios to make visual records of the region, transporting their heavy glass plates and equipment by boat and wagon.
“In one of the photographs, you can see a metal stand behind the feet of Tsimshian Chief Arthur Wellington Clah – this was, presumably, for him to lean against during the long exposure time,” says Savard. The 1889 image Savard describes was also the inspiration for the book’s title. After going to the Maynard’s photography studio in Victoria, Chief Clah wrote in his diary, “Rebekah ask if I going likeness house. so I go. to give myself likeness.”
Images from the Likeness House feature photographs, as they have survived, without digital enhancements. They range from the earliest glass-plate images made by photographers to snapshots taken by amateurs on nitrate film. The title is a tad misleading because the vast majority of these images were not taken in a studio setting.
Images from a "Technology" section near the back of the album are some of the most extraordinary. We are transported through time to appreciate the industry of First Nations people and their methods of production. We see women at the Tahltan village of Telegraph Creek sewing moccasins; a woman weaving a Chilkat robe at Sitka; making a canoe at Sardis; weaving a Stl'atl'imx basket; a family gold mining on the Thompson River; dip netting on the Fraser River, making a dip net near Hell's Gate; the eulachon oil-making village at Fishery Bay; and a series of images documenting the process by which eulachon oil was extracted and eulachon were dried for food.
As well, there is a rare image of the revered Haida carver of wood, gold, silver and argillite, Charles Edenshaw, at work in 1907. Typically, Savard provides succinct commentary. "Argillite is a dense, black carbonaceous shale that Haida carvers still obtain from a quarry on Tllgaduu (Slatechuck) Creek, near Hlragilda 'Llnagaay (Skidegate). For more than a century, it has been made into pipes, bowls, plates, candlesticks, chests, Haida and non-Haida figures, and model poles for trade or show."
Savard notes that some of images were produced by outsiders who were mostly ignorant of the cultures they recorded. It should go without saying, but Savard is nothing if he's not politically correct. “You have to ask yourself," he asks, "is this the photographic record that First Peoples would have chosen to leave of themselves?”
Savard's album contains only three images by Edward Curtis, including a posed photo of two Nuu-chah-nulth women alongside a canoe, both wearing old-style cedar-bark or raffia capes and skirts. This has been inserted to show a typical Curtis attempt to evoke an earlier way of life. To his credit, Savard takes care to add an important nuance in his text: "Curtis has been criticized for keeping evidence of industrialization out of his photographs," Savard notes. "But in the description of this canoe for another photograph taken at the same time, he wrote: 'It will be noted that the canoe has been fitted with rowlocks.'
If Curtis was merely an opportunist and a racist romanticist, why would he draw attention to the 'modernization' of a canoe outfitted with rowlocks (oarlocks)?
Savard has provided a fair-minded overview of Edward Curtis, worthy of excerpting:
"In the second decade of the 20th century, Edward Sheriff Curtis visited Haida Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka'wakw, Ktunaxa and Interior Salish peoples. This single-purposed American photographer produced texts, still photographs and cine film that has set him apart from all others. Mick Gidley (1984:165) described him as "... an extremely ambitious visionary with a tremendous sense of his capacity to achieve." Volumes 9, 10 and 11 of Curtis' The North American Indian and their accompanying photogravure portfolios are devoted to the peoples of the northwest coast of North America, and volume 7 and its portfolio to the Salish and Ktunaxa peoples of BC's interior. Curtis' singular quest was to photograph all First Nations west of the Mississippi River (including the Eskimo of Alaska) to create "the visual epitome of vanishing Indian ideology" (Raibmon 2005:5).
"Curtis' fieldwork was partially underwritten by a grant of $75,000 from financier John Pierpoint Morgan and by pre-selling subscriptions to his opus, The North American Indian. Intially forecast to take five years, this epic undertaking took more than thirty years to complete. Curtis wrongly believed that the demise of First Peoples throughout North American was imminent and inevitable--that they were a "vanishing race"--and he intended to produce a photographic record of time and place that would depict their cultures before Euro-American influences. The challenge he faces was almost insurmountable; how could his photographs, taken more than 135 years or more after contact with Europeans, present First Peoples and their life-ways as they were before contact? To accomplish this he had to reconstruct a lifestyle that no longer existed in its traditional form. He often posed people in clothing made of cedar bark or raffia and other traditional garments, even though they customarily dressed in fashions of the day. As documented by Christopher Lyman in 1982, careful examination of Curtis's images sometimes reveals evidence of non-aboriginal material culture.
"Curtis's work continues to receive both praise and condemnation. More and more often the public is questioning the authenticity of many of his photographs. Some perceive his work among the Kwakwaka'wakw to be contrived and inaccurate. The extent of this popular opinion is reflected in a comment card written by a visitor to the Royal BC Museum after viewing a short film clip from Curtis's retitled motion picture, In the Land of the War Canoes, that is shown in the First People's gallery. The footage... shows dancers performing as Wasp, Thunderbird and Grizzly Bear atop wooden platforms set across or inside the gunwales of three canoes. The comment card reads: 'The documentary film ... is widely known to be fabricated, he [Curtis] himself dancing in the boat. This should have a disclaimer, something to say that the film is simply his imagination of what it was like.'
"But Curtis is not one of the accomplished dancers in the film. Bill Holm and George Quimby, in their 1980 study of the film, state: 'Grizzly Bear is especially expertly portrayed. A number of [Kwakwaka'wakw] people guessed that the dancer was Herbert Martin, a renowned dancer, but he told Bill Holm that he and his brother Mungo were away at River's Inlet during the filming'. At least one of Edmund Schwinke's still photographs taken during the making of the film shows the Kwakwaka'wakw man who danced as Wasp with his mask removed. Edward Curtis would have been either setting up the shot for Schwinke, who also operated the motion picture camera, perhaps directing the scene or possibly operating the motion picture camera himself. But he was not one of the dancers who appeared in the film.
"A recurring criticism is that Curtis costumed First Peoples in archaic clothing. In the introduction to volume 10 of The North American Indian, the volume dedicated to the Kwakwaka'wakw, Curtis freely acknowledged this to be the case and explained: 'The primitive garments shown in the illustrations were prepared by Kwakiutl [Kwakwaka'wakw] men and women for the author, and are correct in all respects. Such costumes, of course, are not now used.' Curtis's good fortune was not only that enough material culture remained to evoke the past in his photographs but, even more importantly, that he had access to, and the cooperation of, knowledgeable consultants and artisans in the First Nations communities he visited."
In 2011 Dan Savard won the Rodereick Haig-Brown Regional Prize for Images from the Likeness House.
Images from the Likeness House is available via Heritage Group distribution and at the Royal Museum Shop for $39.95.
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Images from the Likeness House