They treat it as an expressionist work, turning it around in their hands trying to determine which way is up, hard pressed to make sense of it. It’s similar to, if not as tickling as, the bizarre image of dog-team and skier, taken from a point of view we can describe only as cartographic. Waterfalls haunt contemporary photographers. The essence of a waterfall is that it is continually in motion, a simple fact but one at odds with the idea of a photograph. Stopped too quickly, a waterfall is no longer a waterfall but a set of fixed droplets of water. Given too long an exposure, the contemporary cliche, the waterfall becomes an angel-hair semblance of a ziggurated Christmas tree, quite pretty, but deprived of its essence. In the Harmon work we are not robbed of the falling water’s power or the swift dash and scatter on the glistening, blackened rocks, principally because the composition is so bold. The picture plane is almost severed, as though some giant had rent the earth asunder. The lightning brightness across the field of darkness, a metaphor of the photographic process in itself, rivets our attention before we know what the photograph captures. In ‘Waterfall on the Castleguard River’ the lack of detail does not disturb us. The power and volume of the water, dwarfing the man standing before the fall, are what interests us. It is a photograph about scale, immensity, and nature, and it gains strength through its lack of detail.
‘Lobby of the Banff Springs Hotel’ is a model of the importance of Byron Harmon’s commercial photography. Probably taken under contract for the CPR or, less likely, for its postcard potential, the photograph is both an architectural and historical document. The hotel’s major renovations before the Great War included the construction of the first part of the central tower and the new lobby, a splendid addition to the Canadian Rockies’ premier hotel. When the baronial staircase dominating the lobby disappeared in further rebuilding in the 1920s, the lobby became more efficient, but most of its splendour was lost.
But the photograph is also a tour de force which demonstrates the skill and perceptions Harmon brought to a mundane task. Made in a period before artificial lighting was easily available, taken in a cavernously large room which is dim even today, the photograph is beautifully balanced in a warm, suffusing light. The long exposure through a nearly closed aperture gives the photograph super-realist qualities of detail and depth. We can inspect all the lobby’s appointments: the ferns and spruces atop the rustic plant stands (themselves a whimsical decorative element which bespeaks the hotel’s location at the nexus of sophistication and wildness, where the steamer-trunk set met the wilds and the natural world bowed to the unnatural), the spitoon beside the desk, the announcement board, the advertisement for Turkish baths, the patch of light punctuating the floor and giving the room a semblance of cathedral spaciousness.