In its accidental elements the picture comes to life. Accidents are infrequent in Byron Harmon’s photographs, given his predilection for elaborate planning, the articulation of details, playing light and shadow in elegant chiaroscuro. In a hotel we like to believe is haunted, it is appropriate the lobby should have spectres, the ghosts of the long exposure. The three men near the pillar to the right are one; the two women behind the desk may be one; and the blur of the man reading the newspaper with the woman at the writing desk behind him is so chimerical we must believe it was built into the hotel. In the photograph we see a past the camera did not know was there.
In less obvious ways other photographs by Byron Harmon capture a fanciful past. The tales he was telling were well on their way to myth. The mountain West was a refuge for people who refused to move too rapidly into the twentieth century. In selecting the works for the present volume, we wanted to demonstrate Byron Harmon’s facility with diverse subjects, concentrate on his principal themes and reveal his special interests: his love of faces, an aspect of characterization rather than a carryover from his earlier work in portraiture; his passion for the country above tree line, a black-and-white world so perfectly suited in its contrasts to his medium; and his fascination with the sensuousness of snow and glacial ice, to which he was drawn so compulsively we might suspect a ‘Snow Queen’ fable had some personal significance.
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In the full range of the more than six thousand glass plates, nitrate negatives, negative copies, and prints which the Harmon family has given to the Peter Whyte Foundation in Banff, the diversity is remarkable. They include portraiture (formal, informal, and environmental); obvious postcard material, like ‘Elsie Brooks with a bear’ (Plate 37) or ‘Mount Rundle and Echo Creek’ (Plate 29); record shots for documentation that transcend their rationale, like ‘A.O. Wheeler and T.G. Longstaff’ (Plate 55); unusual and grotesque shots, like the haunting images of men in the mouths of ice or glacier caves (Plates 52, 62); action material, like the photograph of the immense snow cube falling from the roof of Glacier House (Plate 32), which suggests some of Robert Cumming’s photography. Rare, wonderful and inimitable works.
Harmon’s sense of humour was never cynical and rarely melancholy. Its pleasant chuckles, wry comment, and occasional exuberant silliness spread from the humorous photographs to illuminate the rest of his work. That ballet of awkwardness and grace that is the self-portrait of Byron up to his calves in water filming the fisherman is typical. He may have put his people into awkward places for the sake of a photograph, but the places were no less awkward for him.