Northern Exposures: Photographing and Filming the Canadian North, 1920-45

Peter Geller,
Northern Exposures: Photographing and Filming the Canadian North, 1920-45.
University of British Columbia Press, 2004.
ISBN: 0 7748 0928 0 (pb)
Canadian $29.95
(Review copy supplied by UBC Press)

The cover photo of Peter Geller’s Northern Exposures shows a white man and his camera in a kayak on a decontextualized body of water, but a more apt choice might have been the photo reproduced on page 169. This photo, from a 1935 issue of the Hudson’s Bay Company publication, The Beaver, depicts three high-ranking men aboard the HBC’s icebreaker Nascopie and is captioned “The Crown, the Company and the Church, the three great powers in the Northwest Territories.” Geller’s interest in this book is less in the documentary value of the photographs and films or their aesthetic properties than in their institutional provenance – the Canadian government, the HBC, and the Anglican Church – and the way in which photography served the aims of these institutions. He cares less about what is depicted in the photos and films or in any pleasure they may give than in the motives and assumptions guiding the men (and a few women) who made them.

Geller makes an insistent and fairly exhaustive case that the photographic forays in the period under study helped Canada extend its imperialistic control over the North. He devotes a chapter each to the government, the Church, and the Hudson’s Bay Company. For the State, photos “served as proof – as trophies – of Canadian possession” (42), and the “all-seeing eye of the motion picture camera, floating through Arctic waters as it captures images of people and place, is a vivid metaphor for the perceived extension of government control in the Canadian north” (49). The Church’s purpose was to morally improve and civilize the northern races, which meant, in the words of one missionary, “not to educate these boys and send them back to the simple primitive Eskimo life, but to send them back for all practical purposes as white men'” (78). The Hudson’s Bay Company photographic projects promoted trade with the northern peoples. An element of its strategy was to romanticize the North, and thereby the Company itself, by presenting its subjects as both more exotic and more modern than they actually were. One film depicted a family reunion without reporting that the father was returning from a stint in prison.

Geller includes an extensive chapter on a comparatively independent filmmaker, Richard Finnie, who in Geller’s assessment both mirrored these institutional views and critiqued them. Finnie tended to depict the aboriginals as onlookers to civilization. But while he supported development of the North, he was aware of its costs on the native peoples. Nevertheless, Finnie was condescending, praising Westernized “Eskimos” for their behavior, which he attributed to an admixture of white blood and white culture that most of them had.

Geller’s research appears thorough and solid. It also fills a gap in our knowledge of an institution of great interest to cinéastes around the world: the National Film Board of Canada. The prehistory of the NFB, which was established in 1939, is not widely known. But Canada’s documentary impulse began decades earlier, and as much as John Grierson criticized the Canadian government’s film efforts prior to the establishment of the NFB, Geller’s book shows what a substantial cultural debt – the allure of exploration and depiction – the NFB owed to the early photographic work such as that recounted here. This is not Geller’s focus; it emerges from his text largely of its own accord.

The one major disappointment in the book is its clunky presentation. Geller takes the hackneyed dictum, “Tell’em what you’re going to tell’em, tell’em, and tell’em what you told’em,” to an annoying extreme. Not including prefatory and appended materials, the text is only 184 generously illustrated pages long, but on page 17 he is still telling us what the book will be about, and 20 pages before the end he already is beginning to tell us what it was about. His governing argument that the photographic efforts he describes served the interests of the power structure is correct, but obvious, remindful of those academics who in another context whisper “It’s all about oil,” as if it were an epiphany. “Far from an unmediated document,” he writes of a film, “The new north in pictures . . . told a highly selective story, working words and image into an interpretative frame, organizing the multiple possibilities of [the?] North into a coherent account” (133) – as if anyone likely to read his book would have thought otherwise. In one two-page stretch (30-31), six different words or phrases – “civilization,” “scientific,” “photographs,” “report,” “primitive man,” “civilized” – appear in scare quotes, lest author betray a cultural bias.

At times, Geller’s obeisant adherence to his constructivist multiculturalism, by which any image of one culture taken by another distorts its subject, is that it also deprives its subject of happier possibilities we don’t deny ourselves. On page 171, he reproduces a photograph of an Eskimo mother and her child and describes it as a romanticized image reflecting the mindset of the dominant, white male photographing culture. I look at the picture, look at it again, and again, and see something else. The woman is beautiful. The baby is beautiful. The mother and child together are beautiful. They look natural and unposed. What is romanticized about the photograph? That the mother and child are beautiful? That the photograph is well-lit, well-composed? I can’t help but think that Geller is, at least here, so enslaved to his ideological framework that he cannot see beauty or, if he sees it, cannot attribute it to the image itself or, worse, to the people depicted in it.

Fortunately for the reader, Geller is not a rigid ideologue. He acknowledges that one photographer’s work has a humanistic dimension, that another could see both sides of an issue, and that most of these northward venturers were kind and well-intentioned. He laments but does not condemn. He shows awareness of how hard it is to escape the influences of the culture in which one works. As the book’s conclusion, he observes of a film made in 1992, after decades of multicultural awareness, that it does not escape the assumption that incorporation of the northern aboriginals into the Canadian nation is a positive thing.

D.B. Jones
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Friday, 3 December 2004 | Last Updated: 30-Nov-04

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →