In a tiny room containing tiny photographs, fragile and sensitive images tell the stories of Canada’s North. The subject is the Arctic, but the storytellers are complete outsiders.
The National Gallery of Canada’s exhibit Arctic Images from the Turn of the Twentieth Century shows the many ways photography was used to capture the Arctic from the eyes of geologists, surveyors, whalers and artists.
“This is definitely a European or Canadian, non-Aboriginal point of view,” says Andrea Kunard, the Gallery’s associate of photographs. “It has nothing to do with how the Inuit imagined themselves.”
In the exhibit, many conflicting ideas are displayed, from personal to impersonal, art versus document and explorers as opposed to conquerors.
One commercial photographer took a picture of an Aboriginal woman holding her child in a makeshift studio, posed in a way that likely came from a Victorian woman’s perspective. A girl and her baby sister were photographed in 1949 and remained anonymous for decades.
Most of the photographs are hung, but others are contained in journals and diaries. The most personal piece was a small diary of a woman who travelled through the Maritimes to the North in 1913, with photographs pasted into rough-edged pages.
A couple journal entries with photos kept under a piece of glass are changed regularly for fear of light exposure damage. Standing next to something so delicate and ephemeral forces visitors to take in as much as they can while they still have the chance. One print is so sensitive to the light that a soft curtain covers it at all times. When you lift the curtain, you see a man standing next to a couple of dead beluga whales; the man is tense and posed compared to the blood that streaks down the beluga corpses.
In contrast to the government workers and commercial photographers, you also have works showing the Arctic’s mighty icebergs and its people. A large book displays a page showing a massive photograph of a desolate iceberg, which was taken by an American artist who needed to ease his uncontrollable desire for the North.
While hundreds of thousands of photographs have been taken of the Arctic, the Gallery did a fantastic job of picking the perfect few to fill this tiny room and get Canadians thinking of how people portray others. The exhibit runs until Sept. 1, 2014.