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Northern exposure

Photographer travelled to Canadian Arctic to capture traditional Inuit way of life

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/11/2009 (2824 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Inuit called him "Adderiorli" -- the Man with a Box.

The box was his camera.

Richard Harrington’s iconic photo of a mother and son rub­bing noses taken in Padlei, NWT, in 1950.

Richard Harrington’s iconic photo of a mother and son rub­bing noses taken in Padlei, NWT, in 1950.

Two girls asleep under caribou skins during the famine in 1950, Padlei, NWT.


Two girls asleep under caribou skins during the famine in 1950, Padlei, NWT.

Canadian photographer Richard Harrington took epic journeys by dogsled between 1948 and 1953, bringing back images of the traditional Inuit way of life that astonished the world.

Harrington captured life on the land in the final years before the Inuit were forever changed by contact with the South.

"He was the window on this culture for so many people," says Winnipeg Art Gallery director Stephen Borys. "These (photographs) are historical documents, as well as amazing portraits."

Considering that the WAG is home to the world's largest public collection of Inuit art, and that the late photographer shot his most iconic images directly north of Manitoba in present-day Nunavut, a Harrington exhibition is long overdue at the WAG, says Darlene Coward Wight, curator of Inuit art.

Wight has teamed with Mary Reid, WAG curator of contemporary art and photography, to assemble Richard Harrington: Arctic Photographer, which opens Saturday and runs to March 14 on the WAG's mezzanine level.

The exhibition presents 23 black-and-white photos, along with 14 significant soapstone and ivory carvings by Charlie Sivuarapik, a famed Quebec Inuit carver who was photographed at work by Harrington in 1959 and died in 1968.

The images are on loan from Toronto's Stephen Bulger Gallery, while the carvings belong to the WAG. One carving is the exact one that Sivuarapik can be seen polishing in one of Harrington's photos.

In 1950, Harrington travelled with an Inuit guide to the remote igloo camps of the Padleimiut people, inland from the western shore of Hudson Bay. The Padleimiut depended on the caribou, but that year the animals had changed their migration path. The people were starving.

Harrington raised the alarm about the famine. The haunting photographs he took became famous as "the Padlei collection." The WAG show includes about eight from the collection, including Harrington's most iconic image, which shows a mother and son who are near starvation, lovingly rubbing noses.

It was the only Canadian photograph to be included in Family of Man, a landmark 1955 exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Harrington, who felt great admiration and respect for the Inuit, always wondered whether the mother and child had survived. Just months before Harrington's death, a Toronto Star story led to the discovery of the son, Steven Keepseeyuk, alive and well at age 57 in Arviat, Nunavut. His mother had also survived the famine.

Others did not pull through. An old woman depicted smoking a pipe died the day after the photo was taken, Wight says. A man with a frosted face is described in Harrington's notes as being near death after returning from an unsuccessful hunt.

The WAG has bought one Padlei photo that will stay in its permanent collection. It shows two sisters sleeping under caribou skins, and is a particularly beautiful example of Harrington's eye for composition.

"He was a photojournalist by trade, but his compositions are absolutely exquisite and he was really pushing the boundaries... from straight documentary into fine art," says Reid.

He used his camera under such extreme conditions, Reid adds, he had to warm it frequently against his skin to keep it from freezing up.

Some of the photos, taken in communities such as Coppermine, Igloolik and Spence Bay, record happy activities such as drumming. Others showcase the Inuit's great ingenuity, through inventions such as sunglasses made from driftwood, with narrow slits to prevent snow blindness.

A key reason why Harrington was able to capture such remarkable images was that he lived among the Inuit.

"He liked to stay with families in their tents and igloos," says Wight. "He really loved the people."

Behind the lens

Born in Germany in 1911, Richard Harrington came to Canada alone in his mid-teens, a penniless immigrant. He never publicly revealed what his German name had been. His interest in photography grew out of working in a Toronto hospital as an X-ray technician and medical photographer.

Harrington had a long freelance career as one of Canada's finest documentary photographers. He travelled to more than 120 countries, capturing subjects that ranged from Antarctic penguins to remote tribes in New Guinea.

His images were published in more than 2,000 photographic stories in magazines such as Life, Look, National Geographic and Paris Match, appeared in many books, and have been exhibited at the Canadian Museum of Photography, the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Modern Art.

He became most famous for his Canadian Arctic photographs, which captured the vanishing nomadic Inuit way of life and alerted the world to Inuit starvation in the 1950s.

Harrington, an Officer of the Order of Canada and longtime Toronto resident, died in 2005 at age 94.





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