Monday, December 7, 2009

Richard Harrington in The Canadian Press, Dec. 3rd 2009.

Winnipeg photo show exhibits rarely seen images of 1950s Arctic famine

WINNIPEG — Sometime in late February 1950, a Canadian photographer pulled a camera out of his parka and into the stabbing Arctic cold, focused as best he could in the flickering lamplight inside an igloo, and pressed the shutter.

The resulting image - an Inuit mother, haggard from hunger and dressed in shabby caribou skins, fiercely pressing her nose and lips to those of her youngest child - has since become iconic.

But the story behind Richard Harrington's memorable print, and the many others he made around the same time, is less well known. And that's what a show now on at the Winnipeg Art Gallery hopes to remedy.

"It's certainly long overdue," said Darlene Wight, one of two curators behind the exhibit, which runs until March.

Harrington made six trips to the Arctic between 1948 and 1953. He travelled by dogsled and often lived with the Inuit, who still largely depended on the land. It was a life that informed their traditional culture but depended on the availability of caribou.

Harrington's 1950 trip came in a year the caribou didn't. The result was famine. As southern Canadians were welcoming a prosperous decade of suburbs and big-finned cars, many of their northern fellow citizens were starving to death.

On Feb. 8, a few days before he snapped his most famous picture, Harrington wrote in his journal:

"Came upon the tiniest igloo yet. Outside lay a single, mangy dog, motionless, starving ... Inside, a small woman in clumsy clothes, large hood, with baby.

"She sat in darkness, without heat. She speaks to me. I believe she said they were starving.

"We left some tea, matches, kerosene, biscuits. And went on."

More than once, Harrington photographed someone who would be dead the next day. And when he returned south, it was those images that finally alerted the rest of Canada to what was going on in its Arctic backyard.

Most Canadians are unaware that famine stalked their land within living memory, said Frank Tester, an Arctic sociologist and historian at the University of British Columbia.

"It's not a story that's well-understood or appreciated," he said. "We have an image of this country that excises this period altogether."

In fact, although Harrington's work is sold and exhibited at Toronto's Stephen Bulger Gallery, the Winnipeg show of 23 images is his first at a public art institution in Canada in more than two decades. His photographs have never toured the country they portray.

"(Harrington) didn't work within this idea of being a fine artist," said Mary Reid, the show's other curator.

"He was certainly very much a commercial photographer, working as a photojournalist. It's just now within the last 10 years that photojournalism is starting to make its way more prevalently known within the fine art canon."

Harrington's low profile can't be blamed on lack of quality. His Arctic work was praised by no less a photographic luminary than Henri Cartier-Bresson. He was the only Canadian in the world-touring 1955 Family of Man show curated by Edward Steichen.

But even the Winnipeg show may not have happened without the intervention of Harrington's widow, who visited the gallery and showed her husband's work to Reid and Wight.

"I was just absolutely blown away, not only by the quality of the photography, but also by the subject matter as well," Reid said.

The show - which also exhibits sculpture by Inuit carver Charlie Sivuarapik, whom Harrington later photographed - contains plenty of tragedy. But some prints are from other Arctic trips Harrington made and offer a wide view of traditional Inuit life during a time it was disappearing.

"These are very, very proud, striking images of a people that were not devastated," said Wight. "It's really important for people to see (Inuit) pre-community life and how it was very arduous, but also how the people were very proud and had a good life."
Tester first saw Harrington's work 20 years ago.

"It's a window into people who made their own meaning, who survived in a climate that was incredibly demanding," he said. "The pictures portray a people with fundamental strength."

Reid said Winnipeg gallery-goers were crowding into the Harrington show even before the captions were mounted on the walls.

"We couldn't keep them out of the space."

By the end of his 1950 trip, Harrington could no longer take pictures. His fingers had been frostbitten too often.

In mid-March, as he waited for an airplane to take him south at what is now Arviat, Nunavut, Harrington watched his Inuit guide travel off.

"Kumok has gone into the glittering wilderness, swallowed up, only a tiny, moving dot, soon out of sight," he wrote. "The greatest and most infinitesimal spot, who conquers and lives, using snow for his home, caribou for his food and clothing.

"My admiration for them remains unchanged."

-By Bob Weber in Edmonton
Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

Photographer Richard Harrington's "Padleimuit mother feeding her child a piece of caribou skin at starvation camp, 1950," is shown in a handout photo. The Canadian Press/Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery - © Estate of Richard Harrington

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