Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Capturing images of ancient cultures

Tsimshian chief Arthur Wellington Clah, also known as Hlax and Temks, posed at the Maynard studio in Victoria in 1889. Photograph from the collection of the Royal BC Museum.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 26, 2010


In December, 1889, a Tsimshian chief kept an appointment at a photographer’s studio in Victoria.

He soon after wrote about the experience in his daily diary.

“Rebekah ask if I going likeness house. so I go. to give myself likeness,” he wrote in idiosyncratic English, one of his several languages.

Arthur Wellington Clah posed while holding a flat-top hat in his left hand. His right rested atop a walking stick.

His gaze is averted from the camera, which was operated by either owner Richard Maynard, or his employee, Arthur Rappertie. It took so long to expose the 5-by-7-inch dry-plate negative that an iron stand is behind the chief, so that he can be comfortable without moving, which would have resulted in a blurred image.

He was to pick up six stereograph cards for $2.50 a few days later.

Mr. Clah, whose name was an anglicization of Hlax, is portrayed in a dignified manner, as befits a chief and successful businessman.

The image of the chief, whose Tsimshian title was Temks, is one of dozens of striking portraits to be found in a new book published by the Royal BC Museum.

The chief’s diary entry inspired the title: “Images from the Likeness House.” (The original diaries were purchased by the philanthropist Henry Solomon Wellcome and are now kept in a museum bearing his name in London, England.) The book is the culmination of author Dan Savard’s 37 years at the museum, where he is now the senior collections manager of the anthropology audo-visual collection.

The museum’s collections includes some 25,000 photographs, the earliest dating from images taken aboard the gun deck of HMS Satellite in the late 1850s. Mr. Savard has selected 240 photographs, 26 from the holdings of other museums, to illustrate the relationship between the First Peoples and photographic enthusiasts in what is now British Columbia.

“It’s remarkable so many images have survived,” said Dan Savard, the book’s author. “The making of a photograph was a difficult enterprise.”

The photographs include glass-plate images to snapshots taken by amateurs on nitrate film in the 1920s.

The museum’s collection includes snapshots, stereographs, cartes de visite, lantern slides, and picture postcards.

Photographers joined, or insinuated themselves, on colonial or Dominion inspections. They were outsiders capturing images of cultures about which they knew little. In the earliest years, the technology was so cumbersome that a traveling “photographic artist,” as they were known, needed to travel with many supplies — water, chemicals, glass plates, a heavy tripod, and a black tent for a portable darkroom.

Because of the difficulty of travel, far more images exist of coastal communities than of ones in the Interior.

Five years before Mr. Clah posed in his studio, Mr. Maynard trekked to a Haidi village, where he photographed the interior of Chief Wi:ah’s house. An excavated floor contains a fire pit, while the roof includes a smoke hole. Sleeping chambers are found on the upper level. Drying racks are suspended by chains from the rafters. Among the items on display: cedar-bark mats, bentwood boxes, a coffee pot, newspapers, and an accordion.

Many First Nations peoples attended studios as models, though it is not known which ones were commissioned, or whether the models were paid. The Tsimshian chief’s diary is a rare record of the transaction from the subject’s perspective. The author has found an instance in which a photographer paid a Haida woman $3 in 1897 for a “Skeena hat” and the privilege “to photo her in it.”

Chief Freezy of the Songhees and his wife posed for photographer Carlo Gentile in Victoria in 1864. The chief, whose name was Chee-al-thuc, and whose home village is now the site of Gyro Park on Cadboro Bay, north of Victoria, wore his favourite outfit, a Royal Navy uniform.

The British Colonist newspaper published a mocking item on their visit.

“Before taking his departure the wily but uxorious old King requested the artist to potlatch his better half four bits, which was immediately done. ... (T)heir majesties stalked off with a dignity becoming their exalted station.”

The cover image portrays a long-haired man in a tall silk hat, a smoking pipe dangling from a corner of his mouth. The man is possibly Tyee Jim (tyee meaning chief in the Chinook trading language). The image was turned into a cabinet card and a coloured picture postcard, receiving wide sales throughout the continent.

The photograph was revived in the 1960s when an unknown artist clipped one of the postcards, using Tyee Jim’s face as part of the Family Dog rock shows promoted in San Francisco. The image has been on a century-long journey from photograph to postcard to psychedelic poster to book cover. In a roundabout way, it has once again returned to British Columbia.

The portraits from the likeness house speak for themselves.

Dan Savard will be speaking today about the making of “Images from the Likeness House” today at noon at the Newcombe Conference Hall at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria. Free admission.

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