`Canada's Madonna and child'

A Picture and a Thousand Words


John Goddard on `Canada's Madonna and child' - TorStar Feb. 27, 2005.

Death and love have rarely been portrayed together so dramatically.

Mother and child are on the brink of starvation. The previous fall,
the main caribou herds bypassed their camp and now, toward the end of
February 1950, nothing remains in the igloo to ingest except scraps
of caribou skin.

Earlier pictures from the same roll show the mother displaying the
scraps to her three-year-old son and encouraging him to chew on one.
Then, with nothing else to give, she floods the boy's senses with

She grips him firmly and close, presses nose-to-nose as though to
literally breathe life into him, and showers him with comfort and
affection - through her eyes, her smell and the familiar rustle of
her clothes.

Richard Harrington, who took the picture, turned 94 on Thursday;
details of his epic dogsled journeys through the Canadian Arctic in
the 1940s and '50s are fading from his memory.

"And I don't like the cold," he says ruefully over a cup of tea at
his East York bungalow.

But his records tell the story well enough.

On Jan. 19, 1950, he left Churchill, Man., by dogsled in 50-below
weather heading north along the coast of Hudson Bay. At the time, he
was one of the country's foremost documentary still photographers. He
regularly sponsored his own assignments to the far corners of the
world and afterward showed up in New York to sell his work to Life,
Look, Parade and other mass-circulation magazines.

This time his purpose was to document the way of life of some 300
people calling themselves the Padleimiut, living in a region little
visited by outsiders.

After a hard 320-kilometre trip, Harrington reached the coastal
outpost of Eskimo Point, now the town of Arviat. From there, he
prepared to head inland. He hired another guide and dog team and,
within two days of his departure on Feb. 4, discovered that the
Padleimiut were in trouble.

"The people didn't get many caribou around here," he wrote in his
diary. "By now, that's frightening. Dogs are dying everywhere.
Remaining dogs: skin & bones, shivering, listless... It means (the
Padleimiut) can't move around anymore (to trap or hunt for food)."

For the next several weeks, Harrington travelled among scattered
igloo camps doling out what supplies he could: tea, flour, biscuits,
chocolate bars, kerosene and matches. He also bore witness to the

"In the midst of this misery, I took photographs," he later wrote in
his 1954 book, The Face of the Arctic. "These pictures would, I hope,
show the outside world what real suffering was. They would also show
the strength, endurance, courage and ingenuity of an almost exhausted

`These pictures would, I hope, show the outside world what real
suffering was. They would also show the strength, endurance, courage
and ingenuity of an almost exhausted people'
"Maybe after seeing them, white men would stop referring to Eskimos
as `children' and `incompetents.'"

Technically speaking, Harrington was travelling with two 35-mm Leica
cameras, which he carried in his fur leggings during the day and
stowed in his sleeping bag with him at night.

For film, he used fine-grain Kodak Panatomic-X, which he rolled
himself. Normally, film comes 24 or 36 frames to a roll but, by
buying in bulk and rolling his own, Harrington got 40 to 42 frames.
It meant changing film less often in the bitter cold, and it paid off
especially in this case: The mother and son photo came at frame 37.

"No one will ever realize what goes into the pictures I bring back,"
the photographer writes in the introduction to The Face of the
Arctic. Three times on the Padlei trip, he developed frostbite on his
hands. Sometimes his fingers got so stiff he could not click the
shutter. Sometimes the metal of the camera stuck to his eyebrows and
lashes, and he had to rip them away.

What makes the pictures unique, however, is not the technical details.

Arctic peoples had faced late-winter shortages and occasional
starvation for millennia, but Harrington is the only photographer
ever to have captured such an event. Not long afterward, such
extremes of isolation and hunger almost totally disappeared.

The photos are also singular for Harrington's capacity to bear honest
witness at a time of crisis. Unlike some writers of the time,
Harrington never blamed the government for the tragedy.

He did raise the alarm when he returned to Toronto in early April,
and he did secure both short-term and longer-term relief for the
Padleimiut. But he also understood that Arctic life was hard and that
periodic starvation was a fact of life. "It was a very traumatic time
in my life to see that and be directly connected with it," he told an
interviewer many years later. "I felt helpless (to do anything)...
but death was always violent among the people then. You didn't die of
old age in the Arctic; you died because you could not go on."

Of all the pictures from that trip, the mother and son portrait stands out.

Perhaps it is also the most important photograph of Harrington's
long, distinguished career and even the most important ever taken in
the Arctic. Lorraine Monk, founder of the still-photography division
of the National Film Board, calls the work "Canada's madonna and

Over the years, it has been reproduced many times. Unfortunately,
editors have often cropped it tight, zeroing in on the faces and
hands but leaving the impression that the mother is hoisting the
child to her level.

Far better to leave the photo full-frame, as Harrington intended. It
shows the mother crouching to the boy and gripping him not to hold
him in the air but to hold him close.

Their ultimate fate is unknown. Some of the Padleimiut certainly died
that winter. Harrington himself met several old people who appeared
days and even hours from death.

A few years ago, he had an Inuit friend in Arviat try to find out
what happened to the mother and son. The researcher established from
other families and Hudson's Bay Company records that the woman was
called Keenaq and her son Keepseeyuk. But whether they survived the
winter of 1950, the researcher was unable to discover.

What is indisputable, however, is that the mother loved and cared for
her child to the end.



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