Pioneer Photographers and Their Subjects

Posted by Daniel on Jul 16, 2010 - 4 comments

I've been spending time this week with a fabulous new book from the Royal BC Museum. Images from the Likeness House, by Dan Savard, is a compilation of hundreds of photographs of BC's First Nations people taken prior to 1920.

Anyone who has consulted the museum's photo archive knows Savard, who has been the collection's knowledgeable manager for many years. In this book he shares that knowledge in extensive captions which illuminate not just the First Nations people depicted but also the lives of the photographers and the technology of early camera work. There is even a potted history of the postcard. (The title of the book, by the way, refers to what the First Nations called the photography studio.)

The earliest photographs in the book date from the late 1850s. Savard describes the studios that opened in Victoria during the subsequent decade. Suprisingly, there were ten commercial studios doing business there by the late 1860s, supplying the public hunger for images of the Northwest Coast and its native inhabitants. The art of making pictures evolved rapidly and Savard's book has useful descriptions of wet-plate and dry-plate technology and the emergence of the first Kodak box cameras. So popular did the new gadgets become with the snapshot-taking public that "kodakery" became a synonym for photography. (The term snapshot, by the way, originally referred to firing a gun without taking aim; it later meant a photograph taken without benefit of viewfinder, which the earliest Kodak cameras did not have.)

Images from the Likeness House contains work by pioneer studio-based photographers, survey photographers, missionaries, scientists, tourists, even a few by Aboriginal photographers. Some of the names are well known (Curtis, Dally, Maynard); others are new discoveries, at least for me. They are all handsomely presented in this important book.

Footnote: One thing that I found out from Savard's book is that all of the photographs in Edward Curtis's monumental twenty-volume The North American Indian are viewable online here.