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Thomas Lee Inlet

Eastern Townships, Ontario

1967, Fred Bruemmer

photograph

genre painting style

National Gallery of Canada

THE ART

Fred Bruemmer was known primarily for his images of arctic wildlife and his sensitive portrayal of the Inuit peoples and their culture. In particular Bruemmer went to great lengths to record the old lifestyles, skills and traditions that were rapidly being lost to an encroaching modern world, much in the manner of Peter Pitseolak and Richard Harrington.

Pure landscapes are relatively rare in Bruemmer’s published work, more often than not, even when the arctic environment dominates, he provides scale, context, visual narrative and tension by including some human or wildlife element in the composition. This is most certainly true of the featured image. Scale is an intriguing dilemma in arctic landscape. The absence of trees makes it (from a southerner’s perspective) far more difficult to gauge height, or distance, or depth. This can be a very disorienting phenomenon. In our image, how wide is that river? How high are those cliffs? How far is it to that hazy distant land (upper left-hand corner)?

The sled dogs are casting shadows yet in Bruemmer’s image it is hard to discern the nature of the sky itself, which is restricted to an extremely thin margin at the top of the composition. Is it really sunny? Emotionally it seems overcast. The scene is harsh, all snow and ice and rock. The desolation doesn’t even have pretensions of majesty, just grim and vast, and inhospitable. But against this desolation one’s eye traces the sweep of the frozen river beneath the cliffs, and where the wind has left vestiges of snow, tracks of sled runners define a path that leads to a sled, with traces taught and 12 huskies. Paw prints ahead of the team tell us that they are following another’s trail. Where have the travelers come from? Where are they heading?

In this particular case, these questions need not remain rhetorical. The image was taken by Bruemmer in May of 1967 during a 2,000 km sled dog trip from Grise Fiord, Ellesmere Island, to Resolute Bay, Cornwallis Island and back again. The purpose was to hunt polar bears and the route chosen by Fred’s inuk guides and travel companions (Akpaleeapik and Akeeagok) was across the heart of Devon Island from Thomas Lee Inlet on the north coast, to Maxwell Bay on the south. Such a journey had never before been undertaken by hunters of either village. The story of this remarkable trip (and including the featured image) are to be found in Bruemmer’s very first book, The Long Hunt, published in 1969.

The image is likely taken near the mouth of the westerly of two unnamed rivers that enter into the head of Thomas Lee Inlet. View is to the northeast.

THE ARTIST

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