Whistler & Region Repeat Photography Project

29 12 2010

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a lot can be said about as picturesque a place as Whistler. Thanks to the efforts of a century’s worth of residents and visitors, a rich photographic heritage exists documenting the landscape surrounding what is today Whistler, British Columbia. While pioneers such as the Alex & Myrtle Phillip recorded the nascent settlement of Alta Lake, mountaineers such as Neal Carter and Don & Phyllis Munday captured images of climbers at play amidst panoramic alpine vistas. Since the start of ski resort development in the 1950s, the photographic record has grown exponentially.

Landscape is, arguably, Whistler’s defining feature. As any number of marketing campaigns plainly demonstrate, lifestyle-oriented residents and adventure-seeking tourists from around the world are drawn to Whistler by the beauty of the region’s natural environment. Natural it may be, but millennia of human activity, intensified over the last fifty years, have left their mark on our cherished landscape, for better and for worse.

Hunter and dog in the Fitzsimmons Range near Whistler Mountain, 1920s. Overlord Mountain and Glacier in background. Courtesy Whistler Museum and Archives Society.

Both local and global processes have effected our regional ecology. A First Nations trail followed by early prospectors and settlers became a dirt road navigated by keen post-war skiers, and is now the four lane Sea-to-Sky Highways linking Whistler to Vancouver and the world. A town of 12,000 (give or take, plus over 40,000 hotel beds) emerged seemingly overnight. Ski runs, chairlifts and gondolas crisscross (and even span between) two mountainsides.

Franz Wilhelmson pointing out the ski area that he helped develop. Early 1960s. Courtesy Whistler Museum and Archives Society.

Many strong visions for the development (and prevention thereof) of our surroundings have been put forth. Rarely have they gone uncontested. Recent examples include the Peak-to-Peak gondola; disparaged by many local residents as an expensive eyesore, it is an undeniably cool, if somewhat useless, ride. Meanwhile, the ongoing debate over logging in the valley demonstrates widespread misunderstanding divergent opinions of resource industries in our valley, past and present. In addition to these various human factors are many inherently capricious environmental processes–from wetland ecology to climate change. Clearly, our region’s current landscape is the result of a complex array of disparate factors.

Inspired by the Mountain Legacy Project and other initiatives, I figured that “repeat photography” would be an excellent way to simultaneously celebrate the Coast Mountains’ beautiful landscape and examine the drastic changes that our region has undergone over the years.

Essentially, I hoped to take old  photographs like the one above, and “re-photograph” the same location to show how the landscape and the people within it have changed in the intervening years. This pairing of past and present photographs will add temporal depth to the images, augmenting our capacity to evaluate landscape change over time. While historic-contemporary image pairings will be the focus of the project,  other archival materials such as climber’s journals, survey reports, and maps will also be examined to provide context for the photographs.

I recently received the good news that my proposal for just such a project, to be developed in partnership with the Whistler Museum, will receive support from the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE). Click here for the full list of projects NiCHE will be supporting this year .

For some rough examples of what a repeat photography exhibit would entail, take the following image pairs. These two  trail maps (not photographs, but demonstrative images nonetheless) illustrate the extent of  the ongoing development of runs, lifts and other infrastructure on Whistler and, later, Blackcomb Mountains, now North America’s largest ski resort.

A trail map of the Whistler Mountain from 1966.

Deforestation, erosion, and pollution have ensued, but the ski area’s ecological impacts are not as overwhelmingly negative as one might assume. For one, Whistler-Blackcomb has made efforts to ensure that cut ski runs remain viable wildlife habitat. Such clearings can often provide more food (shoots, berries, etc.) for large game animals than mature forest. This fact that was well understood by many indigenous societies which regularly burned wooded areas to support large game populations. Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains continue to support large wildlife populations, including the several dozen black bears that are a common sight in summer.

A current Whistler-Blackcomb trailmap.

These next two images, portraying Garibaldi Lake and Mount Garibaldi from the aptly named Panorama Ridge, span almost eight decades. In this case the photographic record clearly documents the effects of climate change–the  massive recession of the glaciers on the north slope of Mount Garibaldi–on a landscape that is widely recognized as “pristine” wilderness.

Mountaineers on Panorama Ridge take in the view of Garibaldi Lake, from a 1943 Vancouver Province article.

A contemporary image of the same vista, minus the hikers. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

.

Although I hope that the image pairings will provide insight into ecological change, the project is not intended to produce results of a scientific rigour. Still, the precision of repeat photography makes the medium an effective means of informing dialogue about a variety of environmental issues.

Additionally, the aesthetic qualities of the Whistler landscape as well as the human presence in the photographs will present the opportunity to explore the cultural aspects of the human-nature relationship.

I have found several near-identical images, for example, of Garibaldi Lake like the two shown here. Drawn from a variety of newspaper articles, government reports, and tourism brochures from the inter-war period, these vistas of a serene lake amidst sublime glacial peaks were used to portray Garibaldi Park’s “diversified charms,” a recurring catchphrase in promotional literature for the park at the time.

If I choose to rephotograph the Vancouver Province image, or other pictures that include human subjects, I will also have the pleasure to get my friends involved as contemporary figures to contrast with those in the historical images, their fashions, activities, and attitudes. It is this potential to explore cultural and natural history at the same time that excites me most about this project.

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