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  • Northern Exposures: Photographing and Filming the Canadian North, 1920-45
  • Peter White (bio)
Peter Geller . Northern Exposures: Photographing and Filming the Canadian North, 1920-45University of British Columbia Press. xviii, 260. $85.00, $29.95

By 1880, the year Britain ceded sovereignty of the Arctic to Canada, the first photographs of the region had already been taken. As it happens, they were only the beginning of what turned out to be a visual onslaught. Peter Geller quotes John Amogoalik, former president of Inuit Tapirisat of Canada: 'The Inuit are probably the most photographed race on earth. The first time I saw a white man, he had a camera and it seems that whenever government officials or tourists came North, they always had cameras.' In this study, Geller examines how this massive body of visual representation, including film as well as still photography, was used to realize southern Canadian investments and ambitions in the north in the period 1920 to 1945. Geller concentrates on the activities of three groups. In its attempt to demonstrate its authority and assert control over lands where it could barely maintain a physical presence, the federal government created what in retrospect appears to be a compensatory administrative approach that produced a visual record of the Arctic and its Indigenous inhabitants staggering in both its size and depth of detail. For their parts, both the Anglican church of Canada, through the photographic activities of Archibald Lang Fleming, first Bishop of the Canadian Arctic, and the Hudson's Bay Company, through the Beaver, a house journal that evolved, as Geller notes, into something like the Life magazine of the North, used the intrinsic visual fascination of the region to promote, respectively, their missionary/civilizing and economic interests there. Taken together, Geller argues, these projects were instrumental in shaping the myth of Canada as a northern country with all that connoted for national values of freedom, purity, vigour, and so forth.

As we now realize, the problem with photographs and related forms of visual representation is that however compelling they may be, they don't [End Page 372] necessarily coincide with reality. Rather, they become a part of and play an active role in forming the reality that they depict. This dynamic and its inherent powers of naturalization form the critical context for Geller's study. In the circumstances, it is not easy to think of a more appropriate subject than the Arctic. An easily romanticized place of extreme landscapes, severe climate, and exotic wildlife untouched except for the presence of a small, scattered population of 'primitive' but non-threatening Indigenous people, the Arctic was perceived as a void where southern narratives of order and progress could be played out. Not surprisingly, most of the action centres on or is viewed from supply ships, rcmp detachments, Christian missions, and hbc posts. Geller is particularly good at demonstrating the intimate relationship between the motives and administrative processes that produced this level of visualization on the one hand and the power and control it exerted on the other. Told from the perspective of its practices of visualization, his account and explanations of how the federal government, for example, sought to 'possess' through an accumulation of knowledge and use for the purposes of nation-building a place that was both an economic and logistical burden are both revealing and original. As Geller's description of the government's Eastern Arctic Patrol makes clear, it only took a single ship, making one trip a year, which counted as part of its payload a few still cameras and a filmmaker to project not just the vastness of the country but a sense of Canada's meaning and limitless potential.

Drawing on Foucauldian approaches to photography, progressive forms of anthropology, postcolonial theory, and current theories of representation, Geller makes it clear that the cameras of outsiders also played an instrumental role in positioning the Inuit in an impossible, essentially passive role in a losing power relationship with southern authority. In his conclusion he refers to contemporary Inuit and First Nations' efforts to take control of representation. However, perhaps because his emphasis is on the project of photography rather than its subjects, the...


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