Images from the Likeness House

by amy reiswig, september 2010

Dan Savard brings a detective’s passion to the treasure-chest of photos of early First Nations peoples.

Tucked away behind the lab coat and eyewash station, a blue-eyed detective sits at a desk belonging to TV gumshoes of old. Dim gooseneck lamps, industrial metal shelving and horizontal blinds closed over small windows—this is where some of the real sleuthing happens at the Royal BC Museum.  

Dan Savard is the senior collections manager of the Anthropology Audio Visual Collection at the RBCM and author of Images from the Likeness House, a book analyzing, as he writes in the preface, “the first six decades (1860-1920) of interactions between photography enthusiasts and the First Peoples” of the Pacific northwest (BC, Washington and Alaska). The book’s title comes from the diary of Tsimshian Chief Arthur Wellington Clah who had his portrait taken at a Victoria photography studio in 1889 and wrote: “Rebekah ask if I going to likeness house. so I go…the man making likeness to me.” 

While Savard maintains that his is “an outsider’s analysis” because of his cultural distance from the subject, his 37-year career means he provides an insider’s introduction to an eye-popping resource that quietly lives right downtown.

Savard manages a staggering collection of about 25,000 photographs related to First Peoples, and the approximately 250 photographs chosen for the book represent, therefore, only a tiny fraction of what’s available. Currently the collection—housed in walls of filing cabinets at the RBCM’s Fannin building—is used mostly by aboriginal researchers, elders, students and curriculum designers, he tells me, but it’s open to everyone. “There’s such a rich collection of primary source material,” he explains, “and I wanted to get it out.”

An expert at gathering information, one of the challenges in writing the book was making his compendious knowledge navigable to the layperson. Therefore, Savard doesn’t just offer a selection of fascinating photographs, he provides multiple entry points into this world of complex relationships and meanings. Chapter divisions include photographic technology, formats (wet-plate negative, dry-plate negative, nitrate negative, contact print, carte de visite, etc), studio photography, survey photography, photos related to colonial and federal governance, expositions (Chicago in 1893 and St Louis in 1904), missionary photographers and First Nations photographers. Some individuals—such as Edward Curtis, Charles Newcombe and James Teit—have their own chapters, as do photos of people, buildings and of First Nations technology (weaving, carving, gold mining, dip netting, eulachon processing, canoe repair, etc).

“The book is aimed toward someone who isn’t a specialist in photography or anthropology,” Savard says, smiling, “because I’m not either.” Despite his self-deprecating humour, Savard has the collection almost perfectly catalogued in his mind, and it’s this detective’s dogged passion that went into creating his first and, he says, likely only book.

Writing the book allowed Savard the unusual luxury of going into research depth he normally can’t, and his text offers peeks into his process. Each photo is accompanied by details of format, date, location, photographer or source and collection number, but items often come to the museum with almost no information, so Savard has to follow the clues. For example, of a Salvation Army band photo taken around 1895 he writes, “Although the location is unidentified, it is likely that these people are either Coast Tsimshian or Gitxsan, because the Salvation Army was active along the coast and Skeena River. Supporting this hypothesis is the name of the photographer stamped beneath the image, ‘R.Z. Tashiro, Japanese Photographer.’ Tashiro was active at Claxton and Port Simpson from 1892 to 1900.” 

Sometimes Savard simply describes details or the significance of the source—such as what a big house painting represents or that Hannah Maynard was Victoria’s only female professional photographer in the 19th century—but he clearly loves making connections and often elaborates on the story of the subject. Of an interior pole at the Haida village of Rad Raci7waas (Massett), for instance, Savard tells us that “This pole, which originally stood inside Neiwans (Monster House) is now on exhibition in the Grand Hall at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec.” His comments on a photo of Sekani people at Fort Grahame in 1914 include: “This community was flooded after the construction of the W.A.C. Bennett dam in 1967.”

Savard’s enthusiasm for snooping out stories is infectious, and I found myself wanting to know more. That desire is precisely the spark Savard hopes to ignite in others who may be inspired to take up their own investigative journeys in the collection and possibly produce other books. “Further research by indigenous scholars from these communities will bring an insider’s perspective and understanding to the existing corpus of public ethnohistorical still photographs and cine film,” Savard writes. “I hope this book will encourage such commitments.” There are a lot of untold stories in those filing cabinets. 

“I know this is not the book that would have been written by other people. It’s the book I wanted to write,” he says, noting the balance between the empirical and subjective elements of the project. Savard used particular criteria for his choices. “I selected the photos based on three criteria,” he explains in the introduction. “(1) the image had to be ethnographically significant or (2) important to the history of photography of this region … and (3) it had to exist as a high-quality positive or negative.” However, he admits that he most enjoyed the freedom and discretion to use the photos he wanted—including his two personal favourites in the entire collection (you guess which two). 

Savard’s excitement and personal investment is part of what makes the book so compelling, and our conversation is regularly punctuated by exclamations of  “There’s a dynamite picture of…” or “I came across this fabulous…” or “It just blew my mind!” Images from the Likeness House offers important insight into the history of BC’s First Nations and also documents a 37-year relationship, one that hasn’t lost its fire but, in fact, passes it on. While most detectives love closing a case, Savard delights in opening it up to the rest of us. 

Amy Reiswig loves reading and reviewing good writing. Her reviews and other non-fiction have appeared in the Danforth Review, Quill & Quire, The Malahat Review and The Walrus.