Surfacing: Exploring the Canadian Coast Guard Photography Archive

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Editor’s Note: This is the ninth post in the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham

CCGS Martha L.Black, Canadian Coast Guard ship, Photograph, G.Bouchard

The Canadian Coast Guard is an institution that for many years has been recording its voyages and missions on our three oceans using various forms of photography. The intent was always to set out to create documentary images and make records of ongoing events. But what happens when the tide breaks and the camera glitches? What occurs is not matter-of-fact documentation, but an abstracted enigma that is recorded through a series of fragmentary events and moments. Instead of being discarded due to lack of clarity, these images find their way into the archives while not wholly adhering to mandates and orders. The archive’s power is subverted as an apparatus for categorization, a tool of regulation, becoming instead, an object of technocratic adjunction.1 Yet these photos offer the viewer an intuitive understanding of water, blurring the boundaries between scientific and abstract documentation. 

Polaroid #43 found in the Ice Impact Log of Martha L. Black, Hull 108, 1986, Box 17, Binder 1. Author Unknown from the Canadian Coast Guard Photographic Archive Ottawa, Ontario.

These images were found within the Canadian Coast Guard Photography archive (images number 4a, 4b and 43 of 47). They were taken on a ship called the Martha L. Black, Hull 108, located in the Arctic in 1986. The vessel was on an icebreaking mission, opening up the waterways to create a safe passage for other boats, and at the same time recording the ice conditions while the ice was being shattered. The Data Reporting sheet documented these images as previously connected to material states: the ship’s speed, ice conditions, depth of water, weather conditions, distance, wind direction, and speed.  

Spreadsheets and Polaroids, entitled ICE IMPACT LOG, allowed for the collecting of information on arctic patrol missions.  Section 3 of the log states “THIS CONSISTS OF A PHOTOGRAPHIC RECORD, AN IMPACT RECORD SHALL CONSIST OF A POLAROID PHOTOGRAPH OF THE ICE CONDITIONS, STAPLED TO THE PRINTOUT OF THE EVENT.”2 In reality, all of the Polaroids were taped, not stapled, to the printed spreadsheets. The images measure 46mm x 47mm in size, the entity of the artefacts each measure 900mm x 525mm.  

Polaroid #4a found in the Ice Impact Log of Martha L. Black, Hull 108, 1986, Box 17, Binder 1. Author Unknown from the Canadian Coast Guard Photographic Archive Ottawa, Ontario.

The Data Reporting sheet’s presumed data is indeterminate, lacking clarity, and specificity, and yet counts as a record. The process whereby the photograph comes into existence, it is not a repetitive, clearly defined event, such as writing words or typing symbols on the data sheet. Images 4a and 4b offer a clear image of the ice being shattered by the ship, showing the scale of these ice floats by capturing the edge of the ship’s hull. Yet, Polaroid 43 grasps at abstracted cold forms coloured by movement. Despite the log report about what is occurring, the subject matter of Polaroid 43 remains a visual enigma, an obscure riddle for the onlooker to solve.  

Polaroid 43 primarily consists of a cool-toned colour palette with a tiny unrecognizable brown ‘blip’ near the bottom right corner. As illegible, dark apparitions float across the image, the emulsion from the instamatic photograph sits stagnant at the surface. The image suggests motion, light blue emerging and reflecting from somewhere unknown. The yellowing tape no longer performs its function–dislodged from its original context of the impact report, tethered to nothing. 

Scratches adorn the surface of the image, numbers echo on the rebate annotated in pencil (larger) then in pen (smaller), forty-three, forty-three. Oily residue marks the image altering the glossy surface of the picture plane, the residue most likely coming from the crewmate’s hands while assuming the role as photographer. The Polaroid is swimming in murky waters, adrift, a vague murmur of what was there. 

Polaroid #4b found in the Ice Impact Log of Martha L. Black, Hull 108, 1986, Box 17, Binder 1. Author Unknown from the Canadian Coast Guard Photographic Archive Ottawa, Ontario.

Evident in the photographs, the Polaroid film itself becomes its own darkroom processing unit with chemicals encapsulated within. When the moment comes, the camera clicks, the switch is tripped, the shutter opens, soaking up and absorbing the scene in front of the lens. The quality of light from the arctic waters is reflected onto a mirror within the camera, then gathered, refracted, and focused onto the surface of the film. The blue-sensitive silver halide emulsion followed by yellow, red, magenta, green, and cyan dye-developer are activated by pressure, squished and pushed through a series of gears at the mouth of the camera. The Polaroid slides out, distilling the image of what was. The film adjusts to its new bearings beyond the camera, becoming a memento of sun-inscribed ice. Hand-held and pocket-sized, the thick smooth plastic border defines the bottom of the picture frame, where the developer was previously held. Now the image is frozen in its transformed state, the liquid developing solution altered into a solid plane, like water into ice, a frozen surface, reassembling and reflecting off the gloss coating of the photograph. 

The representation of water through the encapsulated liquid medium of instamatic photography allows the process from the development of the image to float to the surface. The watery womb-like imagery acts as a sonogram for a tiny section of the ocean. There is a gestation period between the moment the snapshot was taken, until the full development of the image is complete. Chemicals react, light dictates outcome. Was it rocked by waves upon its arrival into the world? 

Detail Polaroid #43 found in the Ice Impact Log of Martha L. Black, Hull 108, 1986, Box 17, Binder 1. Author Unknown from the Canadian Coast Guard Photographic Archive Ottawa, Ontario.

The Polaroids themselves offer an alternative view of the data sets, creating a physical manifestation of what is happening in the western Arctic. Translating a seemingly scaleless reverie that accompanies oceanic understandings into a jewel-toned hand-held memory, which remembers the reaction made by a ship crashing into ice. Through the abstracted visual experience of Polaroid 43 it offers a visceral understanding that lies open ended. Allowing one to dream into the cool waters of the arctic ocean.  

Looking at Polaroid 43 as an abstract image expressing the data reporting sheet’s information through the medium of instamatic photography.  It allows an intuitive comprehension of the scientific record, which generously creates new perspectives when deciphering this information. The manifestation of this data offers the viewer a moment of non-description, creating space for individuals to generate their own conclusions based on instinctive reactions to the abstracted image.3

The Polaroids were taken when the ice shattered, documenting its changing state. There is turbulence at this moment, the unsteady camera resulting in blurred imagery of Polaroid 43 restructured and creating a new substance. What develops is a moment where instrumentation goes awry. What is created is an alternative depiction of water and ice, created by chance, weather, circumstance, born from oceanic action. The imagery operates separately from the archival mandate, offering impressions and feelings of the corresponding data set rather than a clear-cut documentarian image.  

Polaroid 43 was created to serve the collection of data and clear documentation of conditions, operating adjacent to its intended purpose. It was relinquished to the Canadian Coast Guard Archive in order to maintain the posterity and record of past events. The image becomes a contradiction of conclusions, its purpose was to be analytically grounded in atmospheric conditions, a diary entry, detailing hard evidence. Rather than solely being scientific documentation, a veil is lifted, science melts into art and vice versa. The element of fact that photography possesses, as a mode of data collecting, is challenged through unclear imagery.  The phenomena of the murky abstracted photography within the Canadian Coast Guard archival structure “remind us that bodies (of water) are both nature and culture, both science and soul, both matter and meaning.”4  The abstracted Polaroid slips between the carefully locked door frame of institutional archives; it offers a moment of other, disrupting the carefully curated archival materials. These alternative views pull the onlooker from the unquestioning, accepting position of a visitor within an institutional space, to the position of inquisitive questioning and feeling. These reprieves offer a moment of resistance within archival spaces by not strictly adhering to the mandate and create a heterogeneous understanding.


1. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books, 1995.
2. Ice Impact Log, Martha L. Black, Hull 108, 1986, Box 17, Binder 1.  Canadian Coast Guard Photographic Archive. Canadian Coast Guard Archives, Ottawa, Ontario.
3. Von Ompteda, Karin. “Data Manifestation: Merging the Human World & Global Climate Change.” 2019 IEEE VIS Arts Program (VISAP), 2019,
4. Neimanis, astrida. Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. pp.33

Feature image: Detail from Polaroid #4b found in the Ice Impact Log of Martha L. Black, Hull 108, 1986, Box 17, Binder 1. Author Unknown from the Canadian Coast Guard Photographic Archive Ottawa, Ontario.

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Emma Rath

Emma Rath is an Interdisciplinary Artist and Designer, currently studying toward a professional Master’s of Architecture degree at Carleton University. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a minor in Print, Paper, and Book from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University. Emma is currently working as the Archivist for the Canadian Coast Guard. She curated and designed exhibitions at the Anna Leonowens Gallery (solo and in partnership with Parks Canada) and at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Scotland. Her research addresses the structure of water, inclusive archives, and searching for alternative taxonomies within archival spaces.

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