Nanitch: Early Photographs of British Columbia from the Langmann Collection
At Presentation House Gallery until June 26
Nanitch is a Chinook word meaning “to look”. It is also the title of an amazing survey of historical photographs of British Columbia, on view at Presentation House Gallery.
Ranging from daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, albumen prints, and silver gelatin prints to postcards, stereocards, and cartes de visite, the show spans a 60-year period, from the 1860s to the early 1920s. Borrowed from the Uno Langmann Family Collection of B.C. Photographs, recently donated to the UBC Library, the 330-plus works and 18 albums on display were chosen from some 18,000 pieces by the show’s curators, Heather Caverhill, Helga Pakasaar, and Tania Willard.
Images are equally wide-ranging, revealing Langmann’s expansive and eclectic taste and his desire to gather and preserve photographs that were, not so very long ago, little valued. From depictions of First Nations villages, potlatches, basket-weaving, and salmon caches to those of clear-cuts, coal mines, gold-rush towns, and grocery stalls, the show appears to document rapid European colonization of the place we now call British Columbia. Still, it becomes evident that many narratives can be spun from such a large and varied collection. History is fluid, and the way we read these photographs in 2016 is quite different from how they would have been interpreted a century ago—or even 50 years ago. Postcolonial theory; newly formulated attitudes toward resource exploitation and environmental sustainability; and, most significantly, recent recognition of the rights and claims of indigenous peoples, all inform our understanding of the images on view. “Progress” is not all it was cracked up to be.
Choices made in curating and exhibiting the work, along with the research revealed and opinions expressed in the show’s illuminating little catalogue, also influence our reception of these photographs. As the essayists tell us, the camera has long been a tool of colonialism, widely disseminating its propaganda. For instance, the many postcard and stereo-card images of First Nations elders and “Indian” graves, produced around the turn of the 20th century, served to persuade people of European descent that the region’s indigenous peoples were disappearing, opening the way for the appropriation of their land.
It is interesting that Willard, an artist and curator of the Secwepemc Nation, has chosen to veil images of First Nations burial places. Presenting yet obscuring such pictures asks for our respect while also reminding us of the pillaging of such sites by collectors and anthropologists. What we understand here is that photography itself is a form of grave-robbing.
Despite idyllic landscapes and cheerful scenes of enterprise and expansion, colonization was not without its setbacks. This is evident in the photos of disasters: shipwrecks, train wrecks, collapsed railway bridges, landslides caused by clearcuts, and young cities destroyed by fire. Still, settler culture persevered and photo studios were established, producing portraits that signalled, as Pakasaar writes, “respectability and entitlement”. In this context, the rare studio portraits of First Nations people, carefully dressed in western clothing, are almost inexpressibly poignant.
“Collecting is a kind of disease, really,” Uno Langmann writes in the preface to the Nanitch catalogue. “It grips you, takes hold of you.” The same can be said of the exhibition. You will be gripped, intrigued, and challenged to look, to really look. Nanitch.