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The Inuit in the Light of Day

The Inuit in the Light of Day

Published by the Lumière des Roses Gallery, the catalog Inuit features early twentieth-century portraits from the archive of the writer-journalist Victor Forbin.
Group of women and children. Alaska, around 1910 © Otto Haeckel (1872-1945)

Over 2,000 people have visited the Inuit exhibition at the Lumière des Roses Gallery in Montreuil, one of Paris’ trendy suburban cities. It ended a short while ago, but Marion and Philippe Jacquier, the gallery owners, have published a sleek catalog featuring half of the 350 photographs they had bought in 2019, on a whim, from Yves Bouger, a well-known gallery owner and bookseller based in Granville (Manche). The photographs came in a big box, unsorted and all in good condition, mostly in small format (9×12 cm), captioned on the back, and dating from the early twentieth century. Some were signed, others not. They originally belonged to Victor Forbin (1864–1947), who thought himself an “adventurer,” and who assembled a personal iconography to illustrate his articles, translations, and books (his first novel, Les Fiancées du Soleil, came out in 1923). 

Inuit woman encountered during the 5th Thule Expedition (1921-24) © Unidentified photographer
Portrait of Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen in 1921 © Therkel Mathiassen (1892-1967)

When they were confronted with “this vanished world,” the Jacquiers had known nothing about the Arctic or about polar expeditions, such as the Canadian Arctic Expedition led by the ethnologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1963), between 1913 and 1918, and the 5th Thule Expedition led by the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen (1879–1933) between 1921 and 1925. Although they could see at once that, by their very subject, the photographs were of great value, and not just sentimental, they were yet to document their discovery. This they did during the first months of lockdown, consulting online libraries and Northern museums, moved by these portraits of the Inuit, and the “reciprocal gaze” exchanged between the photographed and the photographer. “It is true, we were touched by this gaze devoid of exoticism,” emphasized Philippe Jacquier, “by the presence of the Inuit, their power in the endless white landscapes. These photos are more than a century old, and yet they seem so close… Those who took them understood that photography is an indispensable tool.”

Seal hunter in Cape York with his prey moored to the kayak. Greenland 1921. © Therkel Mathiassen (1892-1967)
Return of the walrus hunt. Nome, Alaska, circa 1920 © Anonymous photographer

In turn, the viewer is mesmerized by the faces of these strangers, as if they were extracted from one’s childhood dreams steeped in Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North and in the exploits of Paul-Emile Victor who, in 1936, crossed Greenland on foot in fifty days, of which thirty-five in bad weather. Images of igloos, walrus hunting, kayak building; women cooking caribou; whale parties; children wrapped in furs; polar bears; and sled dogs: these pictures, some anonymous, others signed by the members of the expeditions, official photographers or not, show the Arctic as a source of riches.

Today, over 150,000 Inuit live in the Arctic, politically tied to one of the four states: Russia, the United States, Canada, or Greenland. The Arctic continues to inspire dreams, but it needs to be preserved: “By protecting the Arctic, you save the planet. … I think of us Inuit as the mercury in that barometer and as responsible sentinels of environmental change,” wrote the activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier in her manifesto The Right to be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic, and the Whole Planet.

Whale Festival at Point Barrow. Alaska, 1923 © Leo Hansen (1888-1962)

By Brigitte Ollier

Brigitte Ollier is a journalist based in Paris. She has worked for over thirty years for the newspaper Libération, where she created the column “Photographie.” She is the author of several books about a few memorable photographers.

Inuit: Photographies 1910–1930
Lumière des Roses
€ 25
Available here.

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