This writing from Banff’s near legendary poet and commentator, Jon Whyte, was written for the 1979 publication of “Great Days in the Rockies, The Photographs of Byron Harmon”
An Appreciation By JON WHYTE
The Harmony Drugstore in Banff still exhibits the wooden-framed enlargements of Byron Harmon’s photographs which were my introduction to the mountain world beyond the narrow Bow Valley. Those photographs, many of which are reproduced in this book, contained mysteries of dog sleds, pack trains, hunters, explorers, and climbers; they were the openings to romance, a world both threatening and inviting. We built stories around them then. About the image of the Climbers on Mount Resplendent, for example, we thought: ‘Because the clouds were all around them, they kept on climbing even after the ridge was gone. When the clouds went up again, there was no sign of them.’ (Were we remembering Odell’s last sighting of Mallory and Irvine disappearing into the clouds near the summit of Everest in 1924? It was a familiar story in our household. And it may be what misled us into believing the climbers were ascending.) I can look at the same photograph now and analyse the composition of lines which invariably draws our eyes up and into the vanishing point in the peak-concealing clouds, but the temptation to read a fiction in the image persists. Harmon was a storyteller, but he placed the story foremost, telling it with such a sense of inevitability we forget a narrator is behind the mask of stylelessness. Certainly the photographs are rich in style; but rather than imposing the style, Harmon derives it from the particularities of scene, actors, or action. Looking at the photographs, we are comfortable in works where a sense of form enhances subject or scene, where perception of textures and the play of light upon them make the lack of colour irrelevant. If Harmon’s photographs have an easy familiarity, it’s probably because for years the standard views of the Rockies and Selkirks were his, broadcast to the world by postcard, viewbook, and hand-tinted framing prints. His informed eye has largely shaped our perceptions of Canada’s western mountains. Landscape photography was central to his development as a mountain photographer.
When Carole Harmon was about to begin the restoration of her grandfather’s negatives, one photo archivist told her it would be wiser for her to make new photographs rather than undertake the tedious task of cleaning the old stock, making copy negatives, and identifying and cataloguing the collection. Ignorant of the works, he likely thought a mountain photographer took photos of mountains, a skill easy to acquire. In ‘Mount Geikie and the Ramparts’ (Plate 83), we see what seems an easy photograph to duplicate, except for its simplicity. The softness of foreground which we perceive first seduces us for the encounter with the formidable strength of the mountain beyond, the harsh but elegant stridency of the rock, the glacial coldness on the chiselled walls. Here the contrasts and paradoxes of mountain experience are idealized: timeless, yet shaped by time; inviting and repelling, giving life and taking it away relentlessly. The photograph crystallizes the rich and rare experience of the brief alpine summer and sums up our anticipations of the Rockies. In Harmon’s unpeopled landscapes we feel the rarely expressible awe that fills us when we are alone and silent on the margins of ice and rock. We see the mountains with his patterns of detailed foreground, a middle ground of slightly less interest, and a background of monumental stature. Among those who have made photographs in these mountain wildernesses, no other has had the patience and ambition or has created for himself so many opportunities to capture the mountains’ diversity of mood, light, and season. The perception of landscape underlies Harmon’s dramatization of the confrontations of man and nature. His achievement was to array the elements of the picturesque, as in ‘Mount Geikie’, then place people in the scene to humanize the setting while losing none of its glory, making his people larger than life because of their setting, and allowing them to enter the perpetual present of mythic time. Rarest of Harmon’s works are his salon photographs: images which tell no story, intimate no myth, are nearly void of a sense of place, and rely upon their abstract aesthetic appeal for their vigour. The bright zag of ‘Waterfall’ (Plate 82) is anonymous, striking, and apparently so elusive that many people cannot tell what it is.