- Surveying Central British Columbia:A Photojournal of Frank Swannell, 1920 - 28
Many Canadians, including residents of British Columbia, have little direct knowledge of the province's immense size and geographical diversity. Frank Swannell's photographs, taken while surveying the central interior seasonally during the 1920s on behalf of the provincial government, open up a unique window into the heart of British Columbia, as does Jay Sherwood's accompanying text drawing on Swannell's journals and other materials to be found in Library and Archives Canada and the British Columbia Archives. While the book follows chronologically on Sherwood's Surveying North British Columbia (Caitlin 2004), which evoked Swannell's time there prior to the First World War, it also stands on its own.
Surveying Central British Columbia operates on several levels. The large, vivid, and well-produced photographs are at the heart of the book. Swannell took the images to assist him in his wintertime mapping, and the natural features they depict in the huge region extending from Prince Rupert east to Prince George, south to Williams Lake, and west to the coast are as real today as they were then. Other photographs are unique to their time and place, as with the multiple means of transportation employed to cross this vast terrain and scenes of the coastal pulp-mill towns of Ocean Falls and Swanson Bay, tiny Burns Lake tucked away in the interior, and the remote Hudson's Bay fur trade post and Aboriginal settlement of Fort Babine.
Particularly intriguing are the many intimate photographs of Aboriginal men, women, and children encountered and sometimes employed along the way. The shots include mortuary or totem poles, [End Page 460] potlatch preparations, fish traps, smoke houses, salmon drying, and village scenes. The pictures, accompanied as they are by excerpts from Swannell's journal, may be unique for their depiction, in this area of sparse outside contact, of everyday life from dress to home construction to forms of sociability.
As a result of Swannell's meticulous journaling and map making, the book also provides an excellent introduction to the skills demanded in surveying unknown terrain. Sherwood describes Swannell as 'probably our province's best mapmaker of the 20th century,' and the book's content testifies to his skill. The text and images depict the highly masculine world of surveying, where half a dozen or so men were thrust together in close quarters, having to provide for themselves for months on end. Indicative is Swannell's journal entry for 2 June 1821 - 'Lugging 40 lbs of transit around on my back from 7 am to 3 pm. Interminable climb down & get in trouble among the bluffs. Reach camp 8 pm all played out - Rum punch restores the morale' - followed by a cheery breakfast photograph testifying to the men's quick recovery as off they go to work again.
This visual feast, complemented by an intelligent text, underlines just how remote much of British Columbia long remained to outsiders. Local peoples knew the various locations the surveyors visited as their home, whether or not Swannell and his counterparts renamed them to suit the convenience of their map making. The book is well worth browsing both for its content and for the larger reflections it provokes.
Jean Barman, Faculty of Education Studies, University of British Columbia