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"La photographie hivernale au Yukon."
Yukon Archives: 77/19 f. 2, MSS 061
Écrits de Claude au sujet de la photographie


Sent by:

C.B. Tidd


Yukon ; CANADA

The two-roomed log cabin in which my wife and I are spending the winter nestles back in the spruce trees on the bank of the half-mile-wide Yukon River about sixty miles north of Dawson City; this distance measured, not in an air line, but as the dog-team travels. This temporary home of ours which measures approximately 20 x 10 feet inside, has not only been a very comfortable place to eat and sleep, but it has also been a storehouse for a six-month's outfit of food and clothing, and believe it or not I have managed to find space enough to do a little photography of sorts. I am sure that many of you kitchen- and bath-room photographic enthusiasts will not be envious of me. But in spite of limited space and a few other minor handicaps I have succeeded in having plenty of fun during the past five months.

When we arrived here late last September the cabin consisted of one room only; two trappers had used it the previous winter. I could see at once that with our winter's outfit, most of which would have to be stored inside to prevent it from freezing, any photographic work would be out of the question. I spent the next two weeks cutting logs and building on an addition measuring roughly 9 feet square. Along one wall of this small room are shel ves for our supplies; along another is a folding camp bed and tiny stove; the rest has been used to store my photographic equipment and to do my printing etc. Not ideal quarters by any means, but at least I could do something, though I can assure you that a printing 'session' is quite an event and involves no little preparation.

Those of you who have to use the kitchen or family bath-room as a temporary workroom do at least have the advantage of plenty of water, but it is not quite such a simple matter with me here. F or our Scènes domestiques -and photographic - use since last November I have had to cut ice from a slough, carry it in buckets up a 25-foot high steep bank and back along the trail for another fifty yards to the cabin, where of course it has to be melted - in itself no mean job. Perhaps I may be excused if I don't always give my prints the recommended 'ten or twelve changes of water'.

Then too there is the matter of light for indoor work. Two-way sockets, light switches, spare lengths of cord, photo-floods and red bulbs - all these are unknown quantities back here in the bush sixty miles from the nearest Power Station. For all Scènes domestiques use our usual light here is a two-mantle lamp. This burns gasoline under pressure and gives a very bright white light and although I haven't the faintest idea of its candle-power, it gives much satisfaction. On printing nights I usually commandeer this lamp while the other half of our family has to be content with a mere kerosene lamp for darning sox or other such unimportant issues. I have converted an empty gasoline case into a crude printing-box keeping out extraneous light by pinning my focussing [sic] cloth over open side. Exposures will vary of course but an average negative will require from three to five seconds at a distance of about eight inches from the light. No fancy gadgets about this outfit - but it works.

When my quarter-plate horizontal enlarger is not in use, I keep it under the bed - well out of the way of course. I almost decided not to bring this along with me this winter as I didn't know what to do about a light for it. I have tried acetylene, but was always more or less afraid of the blamed stuff, and there seemed to be no other suitable light available. Then I got an idea from a photographic magazine that it was possible to use a 6-volt battery with a bulb from an auto head-lamp. But I had no such battery, there was no car within sixty miles. I did however, unearth 4 1 ½ volt batteries that I had been using on an old telegraphic key. But the bulb: What to do? Then I remembered that I had once, years before, used such a bulb in an ancient model of a 16 mm movie- projector. And - I found it. Now, I have about as much general knowledge of electricity as the average Yukon Indian has of Tibet but after many anxious moments I finally got that bulb connected to those batteries, and my enlarger now really works. I'll have to admit that a dense negative does require some trouble in focussing 'blowing up' an average negative to 5 x 7 or even to 3 x 10 doesn't take more than, say, 30 seconds to perhaps 2 minutes. But w e're not in so much of a hurry up here usually, so what does it matter? And although I haven't succeeded in turning out any Salon-quality prints yet, some of my results have given us and our friends much pleasure, while the odd one has even pleased an editor - occasionally.

Then too there is the ever-present trouble with dust, thou gh judging from what I read this is not a trouble peculiar to this part of the country. I have overcome this to a great extent in my enlarging. The negatives in my enlarger were carried between two glasses. This meant that there were six surfaces to be kept free of lint and dust, a feat which seemed utterly impossible. But in the course of my reading I came across an item that has helped me a lot. ( Great things, photographic magazines, aren't they?) I have now discarded the two glasses entirely - almost. I cut out a mask from stout cardboard with a frame about 1/4 inch wide to fit snugly into the rebate of my carrier. This is placed over the negative and kept firmly in place by means of the turn-buttons in carrier. Simple, isn't it? As I use cut-film almost exclusively I have no trouble with the film buckling. If I use film-pack occasionally then I use one glass only to keep the film perfectly flat.

Outdoor photography during the three months November to January is practically at a standstill. Remember that I am but little more than a hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle . There is very little sun and these are our coldest months. I ma de my last outdoor exposure in 1938 about the 15th of November when the sun was just peeping for half an hour daily above a range of hills to the south. On February l0th the thermometer registered 54 below zero. For at least two weeks previously I had been making firm resolutions to get out and 'shoot' a few snow scenes around the cabin, but not a shot was fired. But what can be done in such temperatures? Not very much. Of course it isn't always that cold but even with temperatures much less severe it is still decidedly uncomfortable. Merely to set up a tripod in three feet of snow and get it perfectly level is in itself quite a feat. Then to fiddle around with a focussing screw, adjust the diaphragm, set the timing device, remove focussing screen and insert a plate-holder, fix a filter and lens hood; all this even at a modest twenty-five below zero is no picnic, especially as it must be done bare-handed. It just can't be done with a pair of heavy bundlesome lined skin mitts on; I've tried it many a time and I know. But suppose it is done eventually, in relays as it were, probably by that time the sun has disappeared behind a passing cloud; and what is a snow picture without sun? not much, usually; or at least mine aren't. But from February onwards until the end of April, temperatures are less severe - even pleasant at times, and it is usually easy to work bare-handed. Exposures may be very short as the sun rapidly gains in power and the snow-covered landscape acts as a wonderful reflector. Practically every shot will then demand the use of a filter and lens hood. I use principally a Kl and my hood is a home-made affair constructed from a piece of cardboard covered inside and out with black insulating tape, and encircles the lens completely; it cost me nothing and carried with the filter in a small tin box, it bas been in use for years.

Strange though it may seem good snow-scenes are not easy to get up here, though we have snow from November to April. Perhaps we get a nice fall of snow and there seems to be almost endless possibilities; but we can't do it to-day, there's no sun; we'll wait until tomorrow, - first thing. Fine! But alas for our good resolutions; during the night a real man-size wind springs up and-- b ut why continue? And so it goes usually. It is only on a rare occasion that we get the happy and necessary combination of good sunshine and freshly-fallen snow. But of course there are other subjects. Shots of animal tracks in the snow make interesting souvenirs of the country; moose and caribou, wolf and coyote, rabbits, mice, squirrel, lynx and weasel are the common animals up here in the winter. Birds are rare now though the Northern raven, Canada jay (whiskey-jack), and the tiny chickadee and red-polled linnet are here all winter, with the snowbird in the early spring. Photographs of human activities are not easy to get, at least not in this vicinity) for the very simple reason that there are so few humans. Our nearest neighbour is ten miles away, and he is a hard man to catch as he is usually away from home on his trap-line. We get our ma il here twice monthly; it comes down from Dawson City by dog-team, and the carrier passes along the river about 400 yards from our cabin. I felt sure, a month a go , that it would be an easy matter to get a couple of good interesting shots of him with his seven or eight dogs strung out, but I haven't got them yet. Twice when he pa ssed, the mercury was hiding in the bottom of the tube, painfully near the 50-below mark; and again it was snowing and blowing cheerlessly, and I didn't even see him go by. Not to be outdone however, I thought I'd try again. On his last upward trip it looked as though it was going to be a nice clear day. About two miles above here, the trail leaves the river and follows a portage, and I thought a couple of shots of him pulling up the steep river bank would be a little out of the ordinary - if I could get them. So into the inevitable pack-sack I loaded camera, tripod, films and filter, together with a lunch and the Yukoner's tea-pail - a discarded lard-can - and axe. Why axe? Just a moment and I'll tell you. Then slipping on a pair of snow-shoes I set out expectantly. I wasn't sure as to the exact time he'd be along of course, but what's an hour or two anyway? I landed up there in plenty of time and gave the ground the ‘once-over' to discover which would be the best angle. This didn't take long, and after a few anxious looks down the trail, I began to lose a little heat, and what was more important it was past my usual lunch hour. So - and here's where my axe comes in - I found a sheltered spot, cut some dry wood, built a fire, melted some snow, made tea and had lunch, making a hurried run out to the bank occasionally to see if I could see anything of the familiar dog-team. I had almost given up hope that he was coming that day at all when out of the stillness I heard him yelling at his dogs. Yes, believe it or not, I heard him even before I saw him, and I could see down the two mile straight too at that. ( Great voices these Yukon dog-drivers have!) I got three shots after he arrived; Though the light was not as brilliant as I might have wished, the meter gave me 1/250 at f8 using a Scheiner rating of 23 for my film. I gave 1/100 to make sure that the figures of the dogs and the dark sleigh would not be under-exposed.

However, all our troubles are not outdoors. For interiors there are other problems to be tackled. Absence of good flexible lighting arrangements is a big handicap. Both my wife and I thought it would be something of a novelty, not only for our collection, but also for the ‘home folks' to get a few pictures of our cabin home from the inside. Well, what could be nicer than, say, the odd shot or two of some of our preparations for Ça commence drôlement à ressembler à Noël? Fine! We'd take them when she had the stove all lined up with pots, pans and percolator and so on. But NOT on Ça commence drôlement à ressembler à Noël Day! When you understand that our kitchen-bedroom-dining room measures only 13 x 11 feet you will easily see why we didn't want to undertake any photography while the actual cooking of the Dinner was in progress; we could easily duplicate the lay-out next day. But I had quite a job on my hands trying to get two legs of my tripod down on one side of the bed, and thrusting the other down at the foot between the bed and a couple of water buckets, and I almost had to stand on my head doing the necessary focussing. But it was accomplished eventually though by that time I was perspiring quite freely, and not in a very sweet humour. We had a little further trouble in hanging the gas-lamp in the right place, and to light up the dark corner behind the stove I used about four inches of the old stand-by, magnesium ribbon. I guessed at an exposure of one second at f8 which gave me a good negative with little blur in the figure. Several other shots made under similar conditions also turned out fairly well. I had, on a previous occasion, tried flash-bulbs, setting the shutter on TIME; opening the shutter, firing the bulb and closing the shutter in quick succession. I had no luck; my flash-lamp refused to work promptly on two separate occasions when I pressed the button, and when it finally did go off, so did the bulb - into a hundred pieces This happened twice and made me rather uneasy even though the glass didn't scatter much; but I didn't know what it might do. The lamp , supplemented by the ribbon is much slower of course, but it seems to work, and there is little danger.

Perhaps a word regarding the equipment I have used up here might not be out of place. Such luxuries as flash-lamp synchronizers and coupled range-finders haven't been acquired yet to pep up my collection of antiques; not because I wouldn't like them, but -oh, well, they're quite expensive. Most of my work is done with an old quarter-plate TRONA, now no longer on the market as far as I know. This is fitted with a Zeiss Tessar f 4.5 lens in an old-style Compur Shutter. The double-extension bellows is useful for copying and close-ups. I have used with this a Zeiss clock-work Self-timer which has been extremely useful as I occasionally like to get into the picture myself, and I am alone a great deal on camera jaunts. This simple outfit has been a very dependable companion over many hundreds of miles of travel by dog-team, canoe and pack-sack, and though some of the corners are beginning to look a little worn I've had the camera for ten years - yet I have never had the least trouble with anything going wrong, and it has never been to the ‘repair shop'. Cold weather never appears to affect that Compur shutter in the least. I was once the proud possessor of a Reflex, but severe temperatures appeared to slow up the curtain shutter when carried all day on a dog-team. Anyway, wha t did I want with shutter speeds up to 1/1000 second; rarely anything moves that fast up here! So I got rid of it. I also use occasionally a 5 x 7 View camera which I fitted with an old f7.7 lens and shutter taken from a discarded 3a Kodak. I fitted this into a panel myself and although it is only 6½ inches focal length yet I find that it covers the 5 x 7 plate even at full aperture.

Yes, I'm still old-fashioned enough to use a tripod; and what's more I use it whenever it is possible to do so. It's one of my most valued photographic possessions and in spite of ten years' hard service, it seems to be as good as ever; it has the revolving and tilting top, and there's never the least danger of my old quarter-plate wobbling or vibrating in the stiffest breeze.

I have found a changing-bag a very useful accessory this winter in which to load film-holders etc. , as I was compelled through lack of space to manage without a darkroom. I use Cut-film almost exclusively for several reasons; it is light and easy to carry; danger of breakage is almost nil, and it is very economical. AGFA S.S. Panchromatic and also their S.B. Plenachrome have given me excellent satisfaction for all general purposes. This winter, as I have had to economize on space, I have used AGFA M.Q. tubes for both films and paper.

As there is no dealer in the Yukon carrying my supplies, as far as I am aware, I plan on laying in sufficient stock in the Fall to last me until the following May when navigation opens. There is no Parcel Post up here during the winter months, and to pay first-class postage rates on material would make the prices almost out of reach. Owing to the dryness of the climate here I have never had any trouble with either film or paper deteriorating in any way, and I do not remember that I ever had reason to discard anything, and there is little or no waste.

But in spite of the severity of the climate, which is perhaps the biggest handicap up here, I have found photography to be a most satisfying and interesting hobby, and my own experiences go to prove that the lone enthusiast working near the Arctic Circle can derive equally as much pleasure from it as the city worker.
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