On a winter’s day in 1889, Tsimshian Chief Arthur Wellington Clah went to a photography studio in Victoria to have his portrait taken. “Rebekah ask if I going likeness house,” Chief Clah wrote in his diary, “So I go, to give myself likeness. Rebekah stand longside me.”
In Images from the Likeness House, Dan Savard explores the relationship between First Peoples in British Columbia, Alaska and Washington, and the photographers who made images of them from the late 1850s to the 1920s. He features the images, as they have survived, without digital enhancements, from the earliest glass-plate photographs made by “photographic artists” to snapshots taken by amateurs on nitrate film.
Photography was a laborious procedure in its early days, undertaken only by “photographic artists” who had the knowledge and resources to make images. These professionals often travelled far away from their “likeness houses” to make visual records of this region, transporting their heavy glass plates and equipment by boat and wagon.
Savard gives examples of the styles of photographs and methods of producing them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He shows the great technological advancements that took place in this period, from the early negatives produced on wet-glass plates to the invention of nitrate film. More importantly, he shows how some of these images, produced by outsiders who knew little about the cultures they recorded, do not portray the interests of the people in them, but those of the photographer.
Savard shares his passion for historical photographs as he discusses the value in each, how or why the photographer produced it, or what the image means to researchers today. This is not only an important book about photography, but also a visual statement about perception (and misperception), cultural change and survival. Images from the Likeness House will appeal to ethnographers, photographers, history buffs and anyone who appreciates a well-taken image.
About the Author
Dan Savard recently retired as senior collections manager of the Anthropology Audio Visual Collection at the Royal BC Museum; he is now a research associate at the museum. He has authored several academic papers and given many illustrated presentations on topics related to photography and First Peoples.