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Manitoba History: Review: Cliff White and E. J. (Ted) Hart, The Lens of Time: A Repeat Photography of Landscape Change in the Canadian Rockies

by Gordon Goldsborough
Department of Biological Sciences, University of Manitoba

Number 57, February 2008

The Lens of Time: A Repeat Photography of Landscape Change in the Canadian Rockies by Cliff White and E. J. (Ted) Hart Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2007, 312 pages. ISBN 9781552382370, $69.95 (paper).

Railways are credited with opening vast areas of western Canada to human exploration, settlement and , in many cases, degradation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Rocky Mountains of western Alberta. Although people arrived there long before the Canadian Pacific Railway, access was limited to the hardy and persistent. The CPR (and later the Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific) drew the attention of resource developers and tourists to the mountain grandeur. (Railway mogul William C. van Horne is said to have declared that “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”) Measuring the changes wrought by improved access to remote places is difficult, however, because there are few quantitative ways to compare their original condition to the present state. Fortunately, the CPR encouraged photographers to travel along its line, sometimes enticing them with free passes and supplies. The result is that we have many excellent images of the Rockies going back to the 1880s. The practice of “repeat photography” – comparing old images with ones taken at the same locations today – has numerous applications. Biologists can demonstrate changes in the distribution and species composition of forests and loss of critical habitat for animals. Geographers can document retreating mountain glaciers. And managers and planners can draw attention to changes in infrastructure and urban encroachment into natural spaces.

In The Lens of Time, authors White and Hart take us on a repeat photography tour of the Alberta Rockies (with a brief sojourn into BC) that begins at Calgary, passes through Banff and Jasper National Parks, and ends in Edmonton. Over 100 pairs of photographs along the route are featured. The authors know their stuff. Both are long-time residents of Banff where the pace of change over the past century has been quickest. Dr. White is a fourth-generation Banffite and biologist with Banff National Park’s Resource Conservation Section. Hart has over thirty-five years in the archival and museological fields, and is now Executive Director of Banff’s Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

The use of repeat photography to study landscape change in the Rockies is not new. Research projects have been done at various places in the US, and the Rocky Mountain Repeat Photography Project (http://bridgland.sunsite.ualberta.ca), coordinated by a group at the University of Alberta, has taken thousands of photographs of Jasper and Waterton Lakes National Parks. Compared to these academic projects, The Lens of Time seems aimed at a general audience. The book is a large, coffee-table format with large photographs and relatively short passages of descriptive text. It covers all the relevant human activities, including railway construction, logging, mining, tourism, and park development.

A purist might quibble with the composition of modern photos in this book. Many are taken at slightly different angles, sites, or seasons than the originals so the impact of a strict “before and after” comparison is diminished. Part of the difference in composition can be ascribed to changes in camera lenses and film formats through time. And in remote mountainous terrains such as those featured here, there is only so much one can do to find the exact site visited in the past. Modern views at some sites are obscured by trees that are a result of forest fire suppression in the twentieth century. Indeed, this is one of the striking and consistent differences between old and new photographs. As the authors note: “Compared to the late 1800s, the landscape of today is one of less ice and snow, more evergreen trees, less grasslands, and of course, a much more visible presence of humans.” (p. 237)

The book is structured with alternating chapters of repeat photography sandwiched between essays on such themes as the past role of people in the mountain ecosystem, railways and the establishment of parks, the interaction of government and private enterprise in park development, and balancing park use and preservation. Cumulatively, it builds a complex story of the changing attitudes of people over time, from an early attitude of boosterism fueling rampant exploitation of natural resources to the gradual evolution of a view that the area should be preserved for future generations but with full awareness that humans are intrinsic to the ecosystem, and must be accommodated. Thus, environmental degradation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was mitigated as national parks began to adopt conservation as their underlying principle, starting in the 1920s:

[S]ome new thinking about the sanctity of national parks started to emerge, and although it would be many years before the concept of parks as fully protected areas took hold, after the passage of the National Parks Act of 1930 the concept of “inviolability,” protection against major development that would impair parks and reduce their ability to be enjoyed by all Canadian in perpetuity, began to inform decision making. (p. 189)

The last chapter of The Lens of Time provides an excellent overview of landscape changes in the Rockies. It considers the historic fire frequency determined using dendrochronology (study of tree rings). And it highlights the ecological principles determining plant and animal distribution in the region: ecosystem control by top-down (animals control the plants) versus bottom-up (plants control the animals) mechanisms, vegetation succession by primary (glaciation) and secondary (disturbance) factors, keystone species (influential single species), predator-prey interactions, and habitat fragmentation and migration corridors. They are careful not to lay all the blame on people today, as one might be tempted to do:

[S]cientists are increasingly aware that much of the landscape change visible in the photographs in this book, and many of the national parks’ most vexing ecological issues, are not simply impairment caused by modern human use and development. More fundamentally, they are due to the dramatically different ways current peoples use the landscape compared to past cultures. For example, the lack of burning shown in recent pictures is not just because modern cultures put out lightning-caused fires, but most importantly, because Native American practices of routinely burning the landscape have ended. (p. 194)

The authors append several useful sections after the concluding chapter, including short biographies of prominent mountain photographers, latitude and longitude coordinates for many of the photographs (to help future repeat photographers to visit these places again), and maps of the photo locations along the entire route.

This book is a great blend of science and history. My only complaint is that it does not have a strong, concluding statement of what it all means. Or maybe it does. Its last photograph shows snow-capped peaks in the background of a new home under construction, surely a telling indicator of things to come. As W. C. van Horne knew, people are instinctively drawn to mountains so it seems unlikely the pace of change will ever abate in the Alberta Rockies. The struggle to find a balance between development and conservation will go on, with the public discussion informed by books like this one.

Cascade Mountain is the only common element in this pair of photographs of Banff Avenue from The Lens of Time, as it appeared to visiting Winnipeg photographer A. B. Thom circa 1886, compared to that of author Cliff White in 2003.
Sources: Glenbow Archives, NA 673-27 (top), C. White, 2003-05L-36 (bottom)

Page revised: 8 June 2014

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