A Life In The Wilderness

  • Stacks Image 24

    Caption Text

Reducing his studio to that which he could pack into two or three valises, he closed shop and left town - an itinerant photographer off to see the world. For two or three years he travelled thoughout the American Southwest and on to the eastern seaboard, to New York, and thence back west across Canada. His work was typical of the photography done in those days: stiff, formal Victorian portraits of couples and families, and slightly less formal poses of tradesmen standing, arms crossed, in front of the apparatus of their trade. It was not a lucrative way to make a living, but his presence would invariably arouse the collective curiosity of the small American and Canadian towns through which he travelled.

If Harmon’s first visit to Banff was a short one, it was an important one. While soaking in the hot springs one day, he struck up a conversation with a local who informed him that despite the possibilities for a photographer in a town like Banff, there was as yet no permanent studio. Harmon was quick to recognize the potential for asthmatic relief in the high mountain air, and there is little doubt that the mountains themselves struck a highly responsive chord in him, for within a year he was back in what he termed ‘that part of Canada which stands on end’. He embarked on his life’s work: photographing every major peak and glacier in the Rocky and Selkirk Mountains in as many different moods and seasons as possible. It was a task that would end only when he could no longer travel deep into the mountain wilderness, over miles of limestone and quartzite ridges and peaks and aaoss acres of tumbling, fissured glacial ice, the peculiarly turquoise-tinted lakes that might reflect twenty shades of light at any one moment, the fast-flowing silted rivers, and the deep glacier-scoured valleys.

Before returning to Banff to live, however, Harmon had some odds-and-ends to look after in the foothills, and he returned for a short while to High River, where he had been working before his mountain visit. There he exhibited a typical ‘seize-the-moment’
impulsiveness by photographing a much-wanted gunman who had fled the U.S. and was creating no small concern in the towns along the eastern slopes of the Rockies. Hiding behind a stout brick chimney on a main-street roof, Harmon was able to photograph him undetected. The resulting print, of a wild-west desperado with a revolver on his hip, captured the imagination of the East and was carried by many of the major papers. It brought Harmon his first national recognition.

The combination of a healthy climate, magnificent scenery, and a chance to make a decent living must have had great appeal for Harmon. A long-time resident recalls the photographer as poor and in ill health when he returned to Banff. He was seen about town in a white shirt, overalls, a large straw ‘sou’wester’ hat, typical of those found in the American Southwest at the time, and short boots with no socks-a stocky man of medium height in peculiar clothes practising a peculiar trade.

Although he continued his portraiture in his first months in Banff, Harmon’s photographic emphasis quickly shifted to the town’s mountain setting and he began producing a line of ‘mountain views’ to sell to the tourists the Canadian Pacific brought to town. By 1907 he had accumulated enough views to advertise the largest collection of Canadian Rockies postcards in existence (‘over 100 assorted views’), and he had saved enough money to pack away his valises and move into a tiny building on Banff A venue that he converted into an effective working area by knocking a couple of skylights into the low shed roof.

From that time on, Harmon rarely took a formal indoor portrait. Only a few photographs of Stoney Indians, taken over the years at the annual Banff Indian Days, present full-frame, close-up visualizations of character; he was more interested in man in a larger context. Faces are frequently a part of his mountain photographs, but they almost inevitably appear as foils in an environmental drama. Harmon’s preference was for landscape. ‘I’d rather shoot mountains than people,’ he would

A Life In The Wilderness

website design | j. gary sill music services