Initially patented as a technological and scientific method for recording empirical data, photography has been used for countless purposes since its invention on the tail-end of the Industrial Revolution. As the medium’s technology developed, its artistic scope and potential also evolved, blending its creative capabilities with scientific intent. Photographs depicting topographical surveys, methodical experimentation and architectural studies resulted in striking documentation that, in a contemporary context, blurs the line between archival record and fine art. While many of these images are stunning enough for an exhibition wall, they are also important for contemporary research on climate change and our shifting landscapes.
Since 1998, The Mountain Legacy Project has been digitizing original glass plates (with images from 1887 to the 1950s) depicting Canada’s vast landscape, found in the country’s various collections of topographical photographs. Once these original images are digitized, a team of scientists heads into the field to determine where the archival photographs were taken, reaching the precarious destinations by foot or helicopter. Arriving at each peak and platform, they re-photograph the landscape to visually record any of its changes, comparing their new images with the old glass plates. In order to share this information, the MLP created a public database that researchers use to develop important ecological studies about changes in the Canadian landscape. The images themselves are striking to sift through, and the database is set up so that the new photographs are easy to compare to their archival iterations.
While a group of scientists is essential for recording the environmental changes at each destination, photographers also play a crucial role in the expeditions. In this interview, the MLP’s photographer Alex Hakonson speaks to LensCulture about the importance of Canadian archives, and what they can tell us about climate change and legislation today.
LensCulture: This project covers so many bases, so I was wondering if, first and foremost, you could explain why it’s important. In general, you are surveying changes in the Canadian Rockies, but why?
Alex Hakonson: I should clarify by saying that we, the surveyors, aren’t always the ones doing the research on those changes. We’re just building the tools that people can then use for all different types of research. We often have graduate students and project associates doing incredible work.
Depending on who’s using the database, it’s important for different reasons. For example, we have one colleague, Rick Arthur, who uses the database to look at how the forested landscapes have changed with shifts in wildfire suppression and shifting fire dynamics in a hotter world. All of this is to say that this tool is critical for creating new ways to look at ecological restorations.
LC: And can you describe how you create that tool? What imagery are you using, how do the archives come into play, and how do you (as a photographer) produce the new material?
AH: We go into the federal archives in Ottawa – the Library and Archives Canada – or archives in places like British Columbia, and we locate the old survey photographs made after 1887. We take these images and their accompanying data, and we geolocate them using Google Earth or any other GIS program. We then line up the topography so that we’re looking at the same image. This gives you a relative idea of where the photo was taken from, and then we either hike or fly out to that location, set up a camera, and re-photograph the exact shot.
The old photograph and the new photograph both end up in our database online, which is totally accessible to the public, and then you can compare the two photographs and look at the changes in the environment. It’s mostly changes in the topography, but you also see changes in the ecology of the area—so changes in the tree line, evidence of forest fires, and even erosion. The mountains also change a bit, and that one’s a little harder to see. Sometimes big rocks will be gone, or there’s evidence of landslides.
LC: So what’s your specific role with the team? What are you doing during this whole process, and what is everyone else doing simultaneously?
AH: I’m one of the few involved in the project who doesn’t have a formal science background, and I was brought on specifically because of my experience with both photography and archiving. I previously worked at Library and Archives Canada, so I have an understanding of how their database works and I have experience with handling and photographing archival materials.
Once we’ve digitized some of the images in the archives, we go out into the field. Someone else will be there writing down all the weather information and geolocation – all the hard science stuff – and I’ll set up the camera and align the shots.
LC: So you mentioned that you’re only drawing from archives that have survey photographs from after 1887, when “photo-topography” was made formal. Can you explain some of these survey methods in greater detail?
AH: Around the late 1880s, the Canadian Government started to realize that surveying the mountains in the traditional sense, using a 40-foot Gunter chain, was going to be far too expensive. So they turned to photography. They would hike up a mountain that gave them a commanding view of the surrounding area, and they’d usually photograph a 360-degree panorama. This new system also meant that Canada built up the single largest collection of mountain photographs in the entire world, all of which were paid for by the government and most of which are at Library and Archives Canada.
LC: What were some of the challenges you faced in digitizing the glass plates?
AH: The big problem is the fact that they are so fragile. The glass is relatively thin, the emulsions are very old and flaking, and they also aren’t always in order. We have to extract them from their envelopes very carefully, making sure the emulsion is facing upwards when you put them down on the light table. It took several years of collaborations with specialists at the LAC to figure out how to extract the maximum amount of information from the plates.
But we haven’t broken any negatives yet! A good number of them are already broken when we take them out of the envelope, so when a conservator is around, we try to put the pieces back together so that we can photograph it. And then we also mark it for conservation so that it ends up in the lab for repair.
LC: Ok so once you’ve gone through that process, you then have to head out into the field. What does your day look like when you’re at that point in the process?
AH: The new day essentially starts the night you get back to basecamp from a day’s work, and you have to deal with all the data. We produce around 200 photographs in one day, and have to go through them, and edit and collate all our data to put it into our archive.
We get back from the fieldwork and download everything from the camera, and while someone’s doing that, someone else is planning our next day already, which consists of going through the maps and all the photographs we brought with us. We have binders and binders of photographs with us down in the field, which is why we need a solid base camp, because we have so much gear. Depending on whether we have chopper support or whether we can hike, we try to look at the photographs and determine when something is hikeable and when it’s not. We also have trail guides and all sorts of books about the trails in Alberta, so we’ll flip through those and try to see if there’s a trail that goes as close as possible to our destination.
But with the chopper, we mostly look up where we want to go and what other stations are in that area, and see if we can land there. And often we actually can’t land, so we have to do a hover exit out of the chopper.
LC: Oh my god.
AH: Doing a hover exit when you’ve got tens of thousands of dollars worth of camera gear in your bag, and you’re exiting towards a ridge that’s like four feet wide, is definitely scary – but also a very cool feeling. I should also explain that the people who originally did this work a century ago were the same people who started the Alpine Club of Canada, so they were insanely good mountaineers. We get to some of these places and I look around thinking, how the hell did they get here?
LC: The thought of that terrifies me.
AH: It’s so much fun! But once we get home and plan our stations for the next day, we can go to bed. And the next morning we either start the hike or go meet the chopper pilot.
LC: You mentioned earlier that while you line up the equipment to photograph, someone else is taking the scientific notes. What kind of data are they collecting?
AH: They’ll record things like wind speed, relative humidity, and write a little story about how we got there, describing the site. They’ll say if it’s too overgrown to actually see and recreate the original image, which is often the problem. The trees have moved up the hills so that when we get to what used to be a spot with a good view, it’s often totally overgrown. Thankfully one of our colleagues has a drone with a decent camera, so we can at least get something, even if it’s not perfect. But we still always take shots from the ground to show the overgrowth. And then hopefully there’s another site close by where we can get two or three intended shots. But there are those days where we spend all day hiking 16 km, and we get to the site and can only photograph trees.
LC: That sounds so frustrating. So what kind of information do you have that accompanies these archival photographs that can help you determine locations? Or is it just the image?
AH: You often just have to know the area, which is why our Albertan colleagues who grew up near Kananaskis are so important. They can start to look at a mountainside and suddenly recognize it. But more often than not, we don’t have access to a lot of written information, like the surveyor’s initials, the year, and the image number.
But it requires a lot of sleuthing and a lot of wandering around Google Maps or Google Earth at six feet, hoping that you find that right mountain. If you’re on Google Earth and you’re off by a mountain, the view in the distance might look relatively similar, and you might not notice because Google Earth has a hard time resolving a lot of the finer details in the foreground. So when you land, you might be 3 to 4 kilometres off, but that can often be a 10 to 12 hour hike, because you have to go down a mountain and up another one. Little mistakes like that can be huge on the ground.
LC: I can imagine. Okay, so you do all this work, and what does the database look like? How are you bringing together the old and new materials into a conversation with one another?
AH: On the website, we have Google Maps running with pins for every mountain survey that we have historical photos for, and if you click on one of those pins, it brings up the old photos and, if we have re-photographed it, it shows the new photos. You can click on any of them, compare them, or do an overlay. There’s also a beta version of an image analysis toolkit, so you can do stuff like draw grids for random counts and other things. For example, if you want to know how far and how thick the tree canopy is, or how far the trees have moved up the hill, you can grid it and then do random counts within that square by the pixel. And because the images are such high resolution, you’re able to get a fairly precise count.
LC: So what are some of the most obvious changes you’ve noticed in the landscapes you are photographing?
AH: I know a couple of years ago, they did some re-surveying in new Kluane National Park, right near the Slims River. The Kaskawulsh Glacier fed the Slims River, but then as the glacier started to recede, the river actually started to down-cut somewhere else and totally change direction. They originally photographed it in 1899, and re-photographed it in 2012, and then re-photographed it in 2016. So only four years after they had initially re-photographed it, the direction of the river had completely changed.
Now the river doesn’t flow into the lakes it was previously feeding. Also back when it was photographed in 1899, the glacier was huge, and in 2012 there was an obvious and significant reduction in size. By 2016, the entire hydrological system changed because of this glacier disappearing.
That’s one of the more dramatic changes. But the fairly regular ones are the changes in treeline, or just tree growth in general.
LC: Yes, that’s so important to visualize. I also wanted to ask, while this work is incredibly important for scientific purposes, how do you see its potential in more artistic contexts?
AH: I think there’s a great potential for comprehensive publications of the images, so that people can experience the work in other ways. It’s this precarious line, because when you start talking about landscape and survey photography in the art world, everyone thinks of Timothy O’Sullivan and Mark Klett, who re-photographed all the Timothy O’Sullivan stuff. But in comparison, what we are doing is quite different, even if just in size and scale. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of photographs, and we’re into the second decade of work right now. And by the time we finish, it will be time to start it up again.
The MLP has published several books and articles, but I also think this material would be incredibly appealing as multiple exhibitions or a larger book. Dr. Trudi Smith organized two major exhibitions based on the MLP imagery, and explored them as something more than scientific representations. It’s just a matter of finding a way to situate it within the art world, but it’s definitely possible.
Photos provided courtesy of The Mountain Legacy Project and Library and Archives Canada/Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.