- Framing the West: Race, Gender, and the Photographic Frontier in the Pacific Northwest
We look at images every day, so much so that we take for granted the visual dimension of our lives. We expect to see as well as to read about events, whether they occur nearby or at a distance. By going back in time a century and a half, Carol Williams causes us to stop and reflect on how comparatively recently in historical time the visual has crept up on and, for many of us, overtaken words as a medium of communication, representation, and persuasion.
Through a very effective combination of words and images, Framing the West explores the early uses of commercial photography on Vancouver [End Page 299] Island and along the north coast of British Columbia. Given that colonization there corresponded with the emergence of photography as an instrument of dominance, the sites are apt, if considerably narrower in scope than the promise in the book's subtitle.
The first chapter of Framing the West, following the introduction, outlines the colonization of Vancouver Island to about 1875. Chapter 2 begins with survey photography as practised by the Royal Engineers sent out from Britain during the gold rush and by George Mercer Dawson in the 1870s on behalf of the Geological Survey of Canada. The chapter moves on to early commercial photographers, who were, not unexpectedly, distinctly entrepreneurial in speculating in images and in responding to whatever commissions came their way including the promotion of immigration and documentation of Aboriginal people for the federal Department of Indian Affairs. Chapter 3 homes in on missionaries' use of images as tools of conversion, both directly and via the 'magic lantern' and stereoscope. The next chapter explores the depiction of newcomer and Aboriginal women and newcomer children. The fifth chapter turns attention to Aboriginal peoples' use of photography for their own purposes, a point Paige Raibmon insightfully follows up in Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast (Duke University Press 2005). In the conclusion Williams reminds us of other aspects of early photography, including the growing popularity of personal cameras and the ethnographic gaze personified by Franz Boas.
Framing the West is innovative not just for its subject but for putting the emphasis on women, as well as men, as subjects and practitioners. Framing the West's images of Indigenous women have for the most part not been previously displayed. Williams is especially effective in explaining how Hannah Maynard, whom she considers 'one of the most successful commercial photographers in the Northwest,' manipulated images by combining negatives into a single end result presented as authentic and into extremely popular composites known as 'Gems.'
Framing the West also makes an important larger point, which is that gender history may finally have come of age. Whereas the thesis on which the book was based received, in 2000, the Lerner-Scott Prize for best PHD dissertation in United States women's history, four years later the book garnered the Norris and Carol Hundley Prize presented by the Pacific Coast branch of the American Historical Association for 'the most distinguished book on any historical subject' written by a resident of the western United States or Canada. Not longer, we can hope, is gender history reduced to women's history.
Framing the West's wealth of insights on early photography makes it essential reading for anyone interested in the topic or concerned more generally with the time period 1860-1910. [End Page 300]
Jean Barman, Department of Educational Studies, University of British Columbia