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Circumstances Alter Photographs: Interview with Michael Barnholden

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Vancouver writer Michael Barnholden is the author of Gabriel Dumont Speaks (Talon Books 1993), On The Ropes (Coach House Books 1997) and Reading the Riot Act: A Brief History of Riots in Vancouver (Anvil Press 2005).  He recently released Circumstances Alter Photographs: Captain James Peters' Reports from the War of 1885 from Vancouver's Talonbooks. He is currently the managing editor of West Coast Line.

Q. The photographs in your book are astonishing. You note that there were technological advances around 1881 that made these photographs possible. Though war photographs are available from the Crimean War and the American Civil War, why are these photographs known as the first battlefield photographs?

You have to be really careful. These are the world's first battlefield photographs taken under fire. Brady and Fenton took battlefield photographs during the American Civil war and the Crimean War respectively but because of technological shortcomings they were not able to get images of the guns firing.

Q. In your book, you note that Peters wasn't just a military man. He was a journalist who had penned an anonymous critique of the Canadian militia entitled ‘How Not To Do It: A Short Sermon on the Canadian Militia.' What made Peters an interesting person for you to research? 

Firstly, it's the images. You have an artillery captain-a lifelong member of the Canadian permanent militia, which is a very select company of about 300 members at the time. Peter's is a critic, he does not take anything at face value and this applies even to the images he shoots: there's a little bit of everything, from battle scenes to domestic scenes behind the lines, refugees to chiefs surrendering. His eye was indiscriminate, and he was not only there, he was everywhere. He also hung onto the photographs when they were pretty roundly dismissed as amateurish.

Q. The escalation by the Government of Canada against the Metis uprising was immense. The numbers by today's standards are really overwhelming -- that there were 5,465 soldiers, 586 horses, 8 cannons, 2 Gatling Guns, etc at a cost of $4,451,584.38. Why were the Metis viewed as such a threat to the Canadian government?

The Metis were a major impediment to the "National Policy" of Sir John A MacDonald's conservative party, which was essentially an alliance of corporate interests like the Hudson's Bay Company and the CPR. Basically the Metis wanted representative government and at the very least that treaties with the Indians who were essentially their extended families be respected. That promised benefits mainly in the form of food actually be delivered. There was wide spread starvation on the prairies at the time and even the white settlers found that hard to see.

So behind the relatively small number of fighters at Batoche there was widespread resistance to the local council and the federal government. Nobody was real fond of the Mounties either. The resistance progresses to rebellion and then onto war. The government and their cronies are imposing their will on a non-compliant populace and Captain James Peter's is there with his camera sending dispatches back to the Quebec Morning Chronicle: an early embedded journalist. But one who does not just parrot the party line.

Q. Some of the most searing images are from the Battle of Fish Creek. Can you explain what happened at this battle and the context in which Peters' took these photographs?

Fish Creek or Tourond's Coulee was the first engagement ever for the Canadian armed forces. they were still under the command for the most part of English officers like Colonel Fred Middleton who Peters refers to as a damned old fool, something that would have gotten an enlisted man court martialled. Somehow Peter's gets away with it. My guess the anti-english officer stance is echoed throughout the chain of command and Peter's using the pseudonyms Foggy and A Bluenose represents the popular sentiment.

Fish creek is an ambush. The Canadians have sat around for weeks and are anxious to engage the rebels who they think of as an inferior military force-untrained, poorly armed and lacking in courage. Peters A Battery suffers 20 casualties on the first day and suddenly the Metis are among the best fighters in the world. They have used a new strategy what becomes known as bush war. They hide in the creek bottom among the trees and fire upward towards the crest of the side hills where the troops are outlined against the sky. The cannon are useless, they can't fire down hill. Eventually the Army retreats leaving their dead on the field.

For the first time they have doubts and if the Metis had pressed their advantage who knows what would have resulted. But Dumont was seriously wounded and Riel was reluctant to engage in guerrilla tactics. It was only a matter of time before the overwhelming numbers of men and firepower would overwhelm the Metis who were running out of ammunition and awaiting reinforcements that would not make it to Batoche in time.

Q. One of the excerpts from the Canadian Militia Gazette from 1885, in the book, reads:

"Necessarily, I had many failures, for out of ten dozen shots only 63 good pictures were obtained, but these proved so interesting that all my labours were amply rewarded. One valuable batch was lost to me for ever, from the fact that as soon as the changing was completed I fell fast asleep through fatigue; had I slumbered quietly all would have doubtless been well; but, unhappily, a bad dream upset all my calculations, and next morning my valuable plates were all kicked out in the long grass and ruined."

What were other logistical challenges that Peters' faced in taking these photos and transporting his camera over long distances?

Peters had to carry his camera- a so-called naturalist or detective camera and 120 glass quarter plates with him everywhere. This would have been extra baggage. He also commanded a couple of cannon, so he was a busy man, and he was also writing reports to send back to Quebec City. What he had going for him was the new technology -- a camera that could be slung over the shoulder that did not need a tripod and could take photographs from the saddle. Very significant developments. But perhaps most significant was the use of dry plates. The glass plates were coated by a chemist in Quebec City, Peter's loaded the camera in the field and then unloaded it and placed the exposed plates in sealed ammunition boxes and shipped them back to Quebec for developing. Not easy but much simpler than other photographers who would need a wagon or train car to haul their equipment. So suddenly you have a new point of view, from horseback and on the field of battle as the enemy is firing at you.

Q. You were carrying out this research as part of your masters thesis. Why did you think it was important to actually see the photos for your self at the National archives?

I wanted to see the remaining originals that all the copies were made from. Peter's destroyed all his original plates when he retired from the army in 1910. The main remaining source for his photographic images is a family album with his captions that was donated to the national archives by his son in 1958. Very few people have ever seen the originals and they are much better quality than the reproductions. His pejorative reputation as an amateur is undeserved.

Q. Was it difficult to get permission to use the photographs in your book?

No, not at all. They are in the public domain. Frankly, I'm kind of stunned nobody did this before. My suspicion is however that his documentation upsets the received narrative of his time and has never been rehabilitated. In a way the project required someone from outside the pervasive historical mileu and a visionary publisher who could see the value both as art and history.

Q. I know this is a stupid question, but do you have a favourite photograph?

Actually I do, and it's the image used on the cover, of Riel as a prisoner. It seems iconic to me. There's Riel wearing a Stetson liberated from the Stobart and Eden store at Duck lake with a white arm band on the arm that carries a bible in front of an army tent with Guards in the background and a tree that looks to be straight out of Waiting for Godot. Then there's the Saskatchewan River and the horizon line. Riel is no longer free. All that is both literally and figuratively behind him.

There are some other great images as well that should be better known. I got a note from someone who lives right at Fish Creek who told me that landscape is virtually unchanged 124 years later. Some of the pictures of the Indians are striking: a Swell Cree for example is almost a perfect representation of a latter day Hollywood image in contrast to the Blanketed chiefs like Miserable Man surrendering or Miserable Man's wife and child beside their horse. Striking and important images that speak to us still.

Q. Anything else?

The way I have come to look at this whole episode is that it is an exemplar of an ideological battle that is still being fought. Now we call it neo-liberalism but what we have in the Metis of the Saskatchewan and efforts at self government such as Batoche and the St Laurent Commune are examples of how contact could have worked against Colonialism and Imperialism. As did the Metis, you would learn the ways of the country you have come to, including possibly most significantly the language. I don't think we will get anywhere until we speak the same language. What if land claims and modern day treaties were negotiated in the language of the territory where the agreements were to apply?

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