Review of Skidmore, Searching for Mary Schäffer

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Colleen Skidmore, Searching for Mary Schäffer: Women Wilderness Photography. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2017. 360 pgs., ISBN 9781772122985.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Cavaliere.

Made during a historical moment in which the “visual was fundamental to knowing,” Mary Schäffer’s photographs reveal the complex social and gendered ways that colonial knowledge of the land was formed through the visual. Following her 2006 monograph This Wild Spirit: Women in the Rocky Mountains of Canada, which traced the career of botanist, glaciologist, painter, and photographer Mary Vaux, Searching for Mary Schäffer continues Colleen Skidmore’s longstanding interest in the tensions between creativity and scientific pursuit in women’s photographic practices of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Skidmore’s exploration of Schäffer’s career is rich with archival material, generously illustrated with photographs of people and places taken during her travels collected from public and private collections across the United States and Canada, and with passages from Schäffer’s private correspondences and journals.

Skidmore begins with a historiography of writing on Schäffer, problematizing scholarship that tends to focus on the personal and biographic – a problem all too common with writing on women photographers and on the accomplishments of historical women more broadly. Skidmore’s distinctly feminist approach emphasizes women’s roles in settler mapping projects and the empirical inventorying of botanical and geological specimens as a way of “disproving the notion of wilderness exploration as a masculine domain” (32). By setting up her study of Schäffer as one that asks new questions of the photographs, Skidmore develops a narrative that demonstrates how Schäffer was “fully aware” and “cognizant of the potential of her work” (30-31). The visual, and photography in particular, was central to knowledge creation and territorial possession in the colonial processes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The photograph served the practical purposes of topographic, scientific, and ethnographic description and inventory, while at the same time being able to convey ideas of settlement, resource abundance, and colonial control.

In the four following chapters, Skidmore traces Schäffer’s work, travels, and life between 1889 and 1939, with each chapter dedicated to a particular period of influence or distinct geographic region. Chapter Two develops Schäffer’s photographic practice as a series of distinct aesthetic choices. On the one hand, the influence of the Photographic Society of Philadelphia and the emerging Pictorialist movement that strove to elevate photography to the status of art, and on the other hand, the more scientific influence of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Geographical Society of Philadelphia. Skidmore situates Schäffer and her photographs into the natural history movement of post-civil war America in which botany was a rigorous, progressive, and modern pursuit, and where scientific study and natural beauty were not mutually exclusive in the photograph.

Mary Schäffer on ‘Nibs,’ frontispiece to Old Indian Trails (1911).

Chapter Three traces Schäffer’s move to the Canadian Rocky Mountains in 1904, and pursues the theme of wilderness through a feminist lens. Working in the mountain wilderness afforded women a great deal of freedom – from wearing trousers, to traveling without male accompaniment, to developing extensive professional networks. Women such as Schäffer were often commissioned to complete fieldwork, as shown in Chapter Four, which delves into Schäffer’s contract with the Geological Survey of Canada to find and survey Maligne Lake. Skidmore roots understandings of Maligne Lake to the photographic and the cartographic: the idea of the lake as manifest in rumours based on indigenous knowledge, to the finding of the lake by Schäffer, to the mapping and inventorying as part of settler knowledge. From a colonial perspective, the lake was transformed from legend (imagined) to wilderness (a natural environment not yet dominated by humans) to place (an imperial possession).

Mount Mary Vaux at the Head of Maligne Lake, from Old Indian Trails (1911), 255.

The fifth and final chapter couples Schäffer’s strong desire to travel with the popular demand for travel writings by women. After a trip to Japan, Schäffer produced her two most notable publications on the Rocky Mountains: Alpine Flora (1907) and Old Indian Trails (1911). In her Epilogue, Skidmore writes that “Schäffer came to study, know, and share her experiences and understandings of the natural world, and especially peopled wilderness just beyond the ever-expanding boundaries of industrializing colonialism, first through photography and then through writing” (236). Indeed, the themes of women, wilderness, and photography are inextricably linked in the pages of Searching for Mary Schäffer. Photography made visible and knowable not just the land, but also exposed the sensibilities of those who were responsible for folding that land into colonial control.

Skidmore’s distinctly feminist approach provides a reading of Schäffer that moves in the direction of the photographs outwards, often focusing on the relationships between the subject of the photograph to the photographer. However, the focus on Schäffer’s transgression of gendered roles through travel, collaboration with other women in the field, and scientific pursuit overshadows the ways in which Schäffer was herself a participant in colonial racism. In her exploration of a photograph of a young Stoney First Nation family, Skidmore asserts that Schäffer had a particularly close relationship with the family that is apparent in the conditions of the photograph’s making as well as in its formal arrangement. While this type of close relationship may have been so, it was not kept in mind as Schäffer used Samson Beaver’s knowledge to find the legendary Maligne Lake, renaming it from its Indigenous name of Chaba Imne (or Beaver Lake). This is not to mention the exoticism the would have been perceived by a white audience at one of Schäffer’s lantern slide presentations of herself in a buckskin coat.

Skidmore’s monograph is more than just a feminist recuperative effort; it is a deep dive into the ways that women, armed with cameras and ambition, shaped the discourse around land. For the environmental historian, it offers a study of how the visual was used to shape knowledge of natural environments, and the ways that knowledge can take on new significance in current scholarship – how the inventorying of wildflowers or naming of lakes was a fundamentally gendered act. Mary Schäffer was one of many women not only performing fieldwork, but also actively collaborating in professional capacities. These women were central to the mapping and inventorying that advanced colonial agendas in both official and popular arenas. By using Schäffer’s photographs as anchoring points for thematic discussions of wilderness, power, scientific pursuit and colonialism, Skidmore introduces readers to the value of the visual in historical research and asks us to rethink the ways we ask questions about the landscape and those who photograph it.


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Elizabeth Anne Cavaliere (settler-Canadian and granddaughter of Italian immigrants, residing in Toronto/Tkaronto the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat) is currently a SSHRC Post Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Art History and Art Conservation at Queen's University. You can find more of her writing in Canadian Studies; Histoire Sociale/Social History; Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies; RACAR: Revue d’art Canadienne/Canadian Art Review; and in the Journal of Canadian Art History. She has won awards for her research from the National Gallery of Canada and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

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