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Surveying Central British Columbia: A Photojournal of Frank Swannell, 1920-28

By Jay Sherwood

Review By Frank Leonard

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 164 Winter 2009-2010  | p. 131-132

In Surveying Central British Columbia, Jay Sherwood offers us the second instalment of the exploits of provincial surveyor Frank Swannell, who spent nine seasons creating and connecting a survey network in the Upper Nechako country during the 1920s. Largely following the format of his 2004 volume on Swannell’s expeditions before the war, the author bridges excerpts of the surveyor’s diaries, field books, and formal departmental reports to fashion a narrative of each of these expeditions from camp to camp. On this base, Sherwood mounts a striking series of Swannell’s photographs – images not only of the landscape through which he travelled but also of his crew members and Aboriginal people.

The photos are for the most part large and crisp, and each is tagged with a BC Archives file number. Their organization and coherent presentation in the text is a testament to the author’s perseverance in reconciling at least three different file systems for hundreds of photos. But the mechanics and method of Swannell’s image creation deserve more attention. The diary for one expedition contains a “Photo Register,” which indicates that the surveyor used nothing more elaborate than a Kodak Brownie camera. It also lists time of day, aperture, and shutter speed for each photo of the season and sometimes direction and lighting. Where it is available, this information should be provided for each image. The register reveals that Swannell was a craftsman, fashioning photographs as carefully as he drew his maps from survey calculations. Even shots of his crew frolicking appear staged, the subject frequently staring intently at the camera, presumably on instruction from the photographer.

The remarkable images of Aboriginal people and artifacts invite reflection. A series of photos of a potlatch at Takla Lake in 1923, including one image of a smiling Swannell enjoying a meal with old Aboriginal friends (83), merits only a single brief diary entry: “potlatch taken in … by us as guests” (84). Sherwood uses another series of photos to document the original location of a G’psgolox mortuary pole, which was later removed to Sweden and only recently returned. But it appears that the surveyor made no written comment about the pole beyond labelling these photos as “Indian Camp – Mouth Kitlope River” (41). This gap between Swannell’s selection of images and his account(s) of these activities deserves more than the observation that the surveyor did not use the term “Siwash” in a derogatory manner (2).

It is surprising that in a book concerning surveying, it is difficult to locate some places. Each chapter begins with a plan displaying Swannell’s route for the season, but these routes have been marked on small-scale maps, several from a Department of Lands highway map published in 1930, which display few of the streams, mountains, and passes that are the stuff of the narrative. Surveying Central British Columbia does contain segments of three of Swannell’s detailed maps, but these appear at the end of chapters and are not magnified enough to reveal most of the places that the narrative mentions. Just where is Bennett’s store on Ootsa Lake, which Swannell visited so often? More detailed sketch maps from Swannell’s diary and field book, such as an illustration of the traverse from Whitesail Lake to Eutsuk Lake (8), would help outsiders follow the surveyor’s path.

Swannell’s career did not end after the 1928 season. In the following decade, he participated in an ambitious Pacific Great Eastern resources survey of the Peace River country and served as geographer on the ill-fated Badeux expedition. If the written and photographic record of these years remains as rich as that which is offered in the present volume, one hopes that Sherwood will produce a third instalment.

PDF – Book Reviews, BC Studies 164, Winter 2009/10