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Legacy in Time: Three Generations of Mountain Photography in the Canadian West

By Henry Vaux

Review By Mary Sanseverino

August 25, 2015

BC Studies no. 189 Spring 2016  | p. 167-68

British Columbia and Alberta are home to the most iconic mountain landscapes in Canada. To many of us, visitors and Canadians alike, these landscapes are the embodiment of Canada. They tempt us to stop, explore, and discover the forces that give shape to the beauty and grandeur of the Canadian mountain west. And so it was with a Quaker family from Philadelphia named Vaux. In 1887, George Vaux and family travelled from Vancouver to Montreal on the new Canadian Pacific Railway. Stopping at Glacier House Hotel in Rogers Pass, at the far eastern edge of British Columbia, the family fell under the spell of the Selkirk peaks and were captivated by the Great Glacier, today known as the Illecillewaet Glacier.

Keen photographers, the Vaux family made stunning images of the mountains in Glacier, Yoho, and Banff national parks. They returned frequently to the region, passing on their passion with the “Canadian Alps” to their children. In Legacy in Time, Henry Vaux – the third generation of his family to photograph in the Canadian Cordillera — has given us a peek into his family’s substantial photographic collection. He selects thirty-seven photos taken by the first Vaux generation, all in the years around the turn of the twentieth century, and returns to the precise spot that the original photographs were taken to create his own, modern, version of each image. With only a whisper of structure to set the scene, and with every image displayed unadorned on its own white-bordered page, he allows the photographs to speak. Each tells a compelling story. Taken together, these pairs of historic and modern views put the landscape on a continuum of transformation. Some places, especially with glacial features, have changed drastically, while others seem timelessly similar. The historic images, captured with exceptional clarity and detail on glass plate negatives, are particularly stunning.

Edward Cavell, former curator of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, provides a foreword that places the Vaux family and their photographic collection firmly in the recreational and artistic milieu of North America at the turn of the twentieth century. Vaux himself provides insights into why three generations of this American family have returned again and again to the Canadian Alps to research, photograph, write, and reflect on these mountain environments.

Only one absence in the book is notable: it has no map to the photos. Those familiar with Glacier, Yoho, and Banff parks will recognize many of the places captured in Legacy in Time, but a map would situate the pairs of images within a broader landscape context. That said, the lack of geographic reference, apart from what is revealed topographically by the photographs themselves, keeps our interest focused directly on the images. For example, Figure 10, taken in 1898, features an image of the Illecillewaet Glacier from Avalanche Crest trail in which the enormity of the Great Glacier fills the horizon. The play of light and contrast on a sea of ice illuminates massive crevasses giving an almost three-dimensional look. Not only do we get a feel for glacial extension in this image, we see the thickness of the ice.

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but that only begins to describe the fascinating nature of change displayed in the Legacy in Time landscapes. This compelling book makes it easy to fall under the spell of the Vaux images and the family that made them. An outstanding legacy indeed – and long may it continue.

Legacy in Time: Three Generations of Mountain Photography in the Canadian West
Henry Vaux
Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2014. 128 pp $30.00 cloth