by Phyllis Reeve
All is still in Victoria Harbour, circa 1900. A fleet of sailing vessels rests static on silvered glass. The Yacht Club's boathouse juts out, its details as magically distinct as an architect's model. This scene, so patently unreal, has been photographed; therefore, it must be real.
But light on water, like the camera's eye, plays tricks with reflection, shadow, and perspective. About this deception, Keith McLaren warns us: "Few among us can resist a view of a harbour, full of tall-rigged sailing ships and busy with commerce, or a dramatic vista of a wave-tossed shore. These romantic images are often at odds with the harsh reality of life". In Light on Water, McLaren reproduces 120 dramatic and romantic images of coastal British Columbia from the late 1850s to the 1940s in the kind of black-and-white that makes us wonder why we bother with colour film at all.
As a career seaman and captain of a British Columbia ferry, McLaren knows just how quickly a seascape can switch from idyll into nightmare and back to idyll again. As I write this during the final weeks of 1998, the islands where McLaren and I live cower before ferocious tempests, super-ferries miss their scheduled sailings, a nineteen-metre trawler rolls over and the men on board drown, while a dainty ketch rides out storm after storm, and then poses calmly, centred in the photograph we cannot resist taking.
McLaren studied photography at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and brought professional knowledge of the subject and medium to his six years of research in public and private collections, and to the creation of what is, despite its library classification, an art book. "So often," he writes, "archival photographs are regarded as secondary to the text and reproduced with little expense and care". Here, "because the best reproductive technology has been used, the viewer... is given the opportunity to appreciate the aesthetic value of each photograph and to explore its detail". McLaren expands his captions into capsule histories, recognizing that "these images are valuable and accurate accounts of some of the ships, industries and people who depended on the sea".
McLaren cares most about the history of photography, which, he rejoices, "developed concurrently with European settlement on this coast". His introduction focuses directly on the photographers and their techniques: Philip Timms, Leonard Frank, and a few others who made of photography a commercially viable career as well as an art. Frank's "Sailing Vessels at Hastings Mill, Vancouver" brings the selective detail of a pen-and-ink drawing to a record of four deep-sea sailing ships still hard at work as carriers of timber, at a time when steamships were taking over the seas. Timms achieves an etched effect in his shot of the three-masted barque, Sardhana, prosaically rigged with staging to allow seamen to scrape away her rust.
Many of the photographs are credited "Photographer unknown". Aboard the four-masted barque, Pamir, an anonymous crew member captures "a surprisingly intimate and detailed view of life aboard a sailing ship" in photographs measuring four-by-six centimetres (they were enlarged here), the sort of snap produced by a Baby Brown camera. The Pamir sailor snapped his photo about 1945, bringing home an easily forgotten fact: the age of commercial sail lasted until after the Second World War. This ship sailed under several flags during her long career, which ended in an Atlantic hurricane in 1957. In a formal pose for B.G. Moodie, she demonstrates why she was one of the most photographed ships of her time.
Several of the images linger. Recreational sailboats anchor near schooners from the sealing fleet. The Chilean ship, Carelmapu, founders off Gowland Rocks, Vancouver Island, on November 25, 1915, while people aboard CPR steamer Princess Maquinna can do little except bear witness and photograph. Shipwrights work on exquisite double-ended rowing boats and 2,800-ton wartime cargo vessels. Men stand dwarfed beside massive propellers. Sailors prepare to launch the corvette HMCS Esquimalt. Like a scene from "Brideshead Revisited", the Empress of Japan glides across two glamorous pages.
There are more intimate shots as well, revealing portraits of the people who worked and travelled aboard these vessels. Hudson's Bay Company employees and their families from Vancouver take picnic baskets aboard the Union Steamship, Cheam. The crew of the HMS Algerine hams it up for the camera, along with clowns, musicians, a cardboard lady, and the captain's cat. Asian immigrants wait and hope in the steerage of a CPR liner. At the Kyoquot whaling station in 1922, the crew and passengers of the steamship, Tees, pose on the belly of a whale. In 1890, Hannah Maynard executes a photomontage of the City of Kingston's crew, almost a pop-up picture, three-dimensional in its clarity.
In 1929, Leonard Frank photographed the Aorangi, the world's largest motor vessel, at dock in Vancouver. Ten years later, my mother's Baby Brownie would snap my toddler self being transported from Fiji to Vancouver by the same ship, shortly before she and most of her sisters went to war-the end of an era at sea.
Our household debated long over the date assigned to the steamship Motor Princess at Ganges, Saltspring Island. Two automobiles parked on the dock look newer than the proposed year of circa 1925. Posters on the dock and houses on the shore offer clues. My primary regret is that the author and his editors did not invest in the additional research necessary to pinpoint this and the many other photographs which bear only approximate dates.
Although the cavalier approach to dating diminishes its value as a document, the book remains a revelation in photography and coastal B.C. history, and a wonderful aesthetic experience.
Phyllis Reeve is a librarian, art dealer, and co-owner of a resort on Gabriola Island, British Columbia.