Whistler & Region Repeat Photography Project

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Editor’s Note: This is the third weekly article for the new group blog Nature’s Chroniclers.

Hunter and dog in the Fitzsimmons Range near Whistler Mountain, 1920s. Overlord Mountain and Glacier in background. Courtesy Whistler Museum and Archives Society.
Hunter and dog in the Fitzsimmons Range near Whistler Mountain, 1920s. Overlord Mountain and Glacier in background. Courtesy Whistler Museum and Archives Society.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a lot can be said about as photogenic a place as Whistler. Thanks to the efforts of a century’s worth of residents and visitors, there exists a rich photographic heritage documenting the southern Coast Mountains’ regional landscape. While pioneers such as the Alex & Myrtle Phillip recorded the nascent settlement of Alta Lake, mountaineers such as Neal Carter and Don & Phyllis Munday captured images of climbers at play amidst sublime alpine vistas. Since the start of ski resort development in the early 1960s, the photographic record has grown exponentially.

Inspired by the Mountain Legacy Project and other initiatives, I figured that “repeat photography” would be an excellent medium through which to celebrate the Coast Mountains’ beautiful landscape and examine the drastic changes that our region has undergone over the years. Essentially, I hoped to find old photographs like the one below and “re-photograph” the same setting to show how the landscape and the people within it have changed in the intervening years.

Such photographic pairings can add temporal depth to historical images, augmenting our capacity to evaluate landscape change over time. And while my research into potential material is just beginning, I foresee no shortage of potential subject matter.

Landscape is, arguably, Whistler’s defining feature. As any number of marketing campaigns plainly demonstrate, lifestyle-oriented residents and adventure-seeking tourists from around the world are drawn to Whistler by the beauty of the region’s natural environment. Natural it may be, but millennia of human activity, intensified over the last fifty years, have left their mark on our cherished landscape, for better and for worse.

Both local and global processes have affected our regional ecology. A First Nations trail followed by early prospectors and settlers became a dirt road navigated by keen post-war recreational skiers, and is now the four lane Sea-to-Sky Highways linking Whistler to Vancouver and the world. A town of 12,000 (give or take, plus over 40,000 hotel beds) emerged seemingly overnight. Ski runs, chairlifts and gondolas crisscross (and even span between) two mountainsides.

Franz Wilhelmson pointing out the ski area that he helped develop. Early 1960s. Courtesy Whistler Museum and Archives Society.

Many strong visions for the development (and prevention thereof) of our surroundings have been put forth. Rarely have they gone uncontested. Recent examples include the Peak-to-Peak gondola; disparaged by many local residents as an expensive eyesore, it is an undeniably cool, if somewhat useless, ride. Meanwhile, the ongoing debate over logging in the valley demonstrates widely divergent opinions about resource industries in our tourism-oriented.

Additionally, many inherently capricious environmental processes–from wetland ecology to climate change-have continued unabated amidst these human controversies. Clearly, our region’s current landscape is the result of a complex array of disparate factors.

For some rough examples of what a repeat photography exhibit would entail, take the following image pairs. These two trail maps (not photographs, but demonstrative images nonetheless) illustrate the extent of the ongoing development of runs, lifts and other infrastructure on Whistler and, later, Blackcomb Mountains, now North America’s largest ski resort.

A trail map of the Whistler Mountain from 1966.
A trail map of the Whistler Mountain from 1966.
A current Whistler-Blackcomb trailmap.
A current Whistler-Blackcomb trail map.

Deforestation, erosion, and pollution have ensued, but the ski area’s ecological impacts are not as overwhelmingly negative as one might assume. For one, Whistler-Blackcomb has made efforts to ensure that cut ski runs remain viable wildlife habitat. Such clearings can often provide more food (shoots, berries, etc.) for large game animals than mature forest.

This fact that was well understood by many indigenous societies across North America which regularly burned wooded areas to support large game populations. Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains continue to support large wildlife populations, including several dozen black bears that are a common sight throughout the summer.

These next two images, portraying Garibaldi Lake and Mount Garibaldi from the aptly named Panorama Ridge, span almost eight decades. In this case the photographic record clearly documents the effects of climate change–the massive recession of the glaciers on the north slope of Mount Garibaldi–on a landscape that is widely recognized as “pristine” wilderness.

Panorama Ridge, 1943. Provence Newspaper.
Panorama Ridge, 1943. Provence Newspaper.
A contemporary image of the same vista, minus the climbers. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
A contemporary image of the same vista, minus the climbers. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Additionally, the aesthetic qualities of the Whistler landscape as well as the human presence in the photographs will present the opportunity to explore the relationship between nature and society relationship from a cultural perspective. It is this potential to explore cultural and natural history at the same time that excites me most about this project.

How, for example, do the changes humans have made to the land reflect the needs of local residents, and to what extent do they cater to visitors?

I have found several near-identical images of Garibaldi Lake like the two shown here. Drawn from a variety of newspaper articles, government reports, and tourism brochures from the inter-war period, these vistas of a serene lake amidst sublime glacial peaks were used to portray Garibaldi Park’s “diversified charms,” a recurring catchphrase in promotional literature for the park at the time.

The intent was to portray Garibaldi as an invigorating, but relatively safe tourism destination, well-suited for day trips by Vancouver’s rapidly growing middle class. The day-long boat, train, then foot trek, however, meant that hardy mountaineers were far more common than picnicking families. These images are best interpreted, therefore, within the context of ongoing campaigns for the construction of a highway and tourist accommodations necessary to “make Garibaldi a real park.”

Ultimately, I hope the exhibit does not come across as a simple condemnation of over-development. Certainly, much good has been preserved and even added to our regional environment, and this is worthy of discussion as well.

Although I do not aim to produce results of a scientific rigour, the precision of repeat photography makes the medium an effective means of informing dialogue about a variety of environmental issues.

By simply asking “how has this place changed, and what has been our role in this change?” the exhibit can challenge audiences to consider human society as one among many elements of a regional ecology, and use this as a starting point for plotting future courses for our community at a post-Olympic crossroads.

Featured image: Photo by Brian Tafel on Unsplash.

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Jeff Slack

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