Images from the Likeness House
November 4, 2013
Review By Jennifer Cador
At the start of Images from the Likeness House, Dan Savard tells us why the photographs he presents of Aboriginal people are important. Put succinctly, it is because of their past and continuing influence on public perceptions of First Peoples. Though he has deliberately chosen images not often reproduced, his point remains strong: photographs such as the ones published here are used in films, prints, and exhibits, and have been for more than a century. It is for this reason that such photographs require critical scrutiny.
Savard is well positioned to produce such a volume, having recently retired from a long career as a curator at the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM). In his sampling of 241 images – primarily created by non-Aboriginal photographers – Savard successfully presents a subjective interpretation of the photographic interplay between Aboriginal and settler populations in the British Columbia, Washington State, and Alaska regions between 1860 and 1920. The photographs are gathered from diverse museum collections, with an emphasis on the RBCM collections. Refreshingly, Savard uses the images as primary source documents rather than as mere evidence to support text. By covering a range of areas and cultures, and by providing a sampling of the work of numerous professional and amateur photographers, Images from the Likeness House is broader in scope than many other books in the genre.
The reader will appreciate Savard’s in-depth explanation of the technological developments, which occurred throughout the nineteenth century, that made the photographs possible. Though he has published some of this information relatively recently (Grant Keddie, Songhees Pictorial, 2003, foreword, 10-12) – such description is a necessary addition here as it enables the reader to more fully appreciate the complexities of early photograph-making.
The images are valuable documents. Their high resolution provides opportunity for close study, and readers will find a magnifying glass to be a useful tool. Most images feature people; others depict landscapes or artworks.
Their thematic organization emphasizes interactions between Aboriginal and settler populations, with chapters on topics such as scientific research, tourism, and missionary photography. Though somewhat unexpected in a book of photographs taken by outsiders, Savard’s section on First Nations photographers is of particular interest because of its shift in point of view. He includes, for example, a rare insider’s view of a Makah whaling expedition (147). One wishes this section had been longer.
Readers should understand, however, that Savard approaches the images from a decidedly anthropological point of view, which means he privileges some aspects of the photographs over others. He sees the images as visual evidence of lifeways. I certainly agree that they are. However, he does not view them as art and, indeed, seems to see artistic embellishment, such as that seen in Edward Curtis’s or Hannah Maynard’s images, as tainting their documentary value. This position will not serve all readers. For art historians, for example, the aesthetic elements also form important parts of the visual histories of First Peoples and are inseparable from content. It is a matter of vantage point.
Images from the Likeness House is a carefully cited, critical volume, and scholars will find it to be a useful starting point for the study of First Nations images in the region, providing leads to diverse collections and photographers. It is also a clearly written, image-heavy volume, and popular audiences will find it to be an accessible historical and anthropological resource. Indeed, it has already received recognition: Images from the Likeness House was recently awarded the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize (best B.C.-based book) from BC Book Prizes.
Images from the Likeness House by Dan Savard.
(Royal BC Museum) paperback, 208 pages, 9 x 10.5”, 300 b/w and colour photographs $39.95