Byron Harmon - the eye of the beholder  

by Sebastian Hutchings

Born on the family homestead at Olympia, Washington, Byron Harmon was endowed with a knack for using his hands, an adventurer’s spirit, and a bad case of asthma that vexed him his entire life. As a teenager, photography grabbed his interest and he waded into the new medium with a pinhole camera he constructed himself. An enterprising young man, he opened up a portrait studio in Tacoma, WA.. Without enough money to buy film he accepted his first client and proceeded to take her picture with an empty camera. Requesting a down payment, he used the money to buy film and then asked the lady back for retakes. From that moment on he never looked back. Harmon soon realised that there was little to hold his interest in portrait photography alone. Packing his studio into three valises, he set out to wrestle with the North American landscape, heading across the southern United States, up through New York, and back west across Canada, garbed in a travelling hobos fashion wearing overalls, a white shirt and a wide brimmed straw hat, his feet naked in his boots. Wandering amidst these landscapes, his eye for geography and his talent with a lens developed quickly.

In 1903, at age 27, Harmon made a short visit to a bustling little community in the Canadian Rockies called Banff. Already with a handful of hotels, a chemist, a sanitarium, and international stardom, Harmon was shocked to find that the town was without a photographic studio. As an added bonus, the dry mountain air helped relieve his asthma. The visit was short but his impression of the place was a lasting one and he soon returned to make a living photographing mountains. Without roads or trail systems, the mountains required him to negotiate their steep slopes and treacherous passes to discover his sought after images, a deed equally as challenging as framing up the jagged peaks. His forays into mountaineering bore fruit and in 1906 he opened up shop on Banff Avenue, across from the present Harmony Lane, advertising the largest collection of Canadian Rockies images in existence.

The same year The Alpine Club of Canada was formed under the Directorship of Arthur O. Wheeler, committed to the exploration, scientific understanding, and artistic interpretation of Canada’s mountain landscape. With Byron’s noticeable presence in town, Wheeler invited him to become a charter member and the official club photographer. To compliment it’s lofty ambitions, the ACC was committed to publishing an annual journal, which would feature prominently Harmon’s photos. The opportunity was a rare blessing and afforded Harmon a shot at reaching his goal of photographing every peak in the Rockies in as many moods and settings as possible.

Two Alpine Club trips in particular accounted for a sizeable body of Harmon’s collection and increased his stature as a photographer and a mountain goer. The first was a trip into the Purcell Mountains with Wheeler and Himalayan climber Dr. T. G. Longstaff in 1910, during which Harmon discovered and photographed Bugaboo Glacier.. The second was a three-month expedition the following year into the Mt. Robson area with Wheeler, mountain guide Conrad Kain, and four scientists from the Smithsonian Institute. For Wheeler, the trip was a chance to explore new territory in preparation for a later ACC camp and to scout out the Canadian Rockies’ most lofty peak; for the scientists it was a great look at the flora and fauna of the northern Canadian Rockies; and for Harmon it was an intimate look at some of the wildest country in Western Canada. During the trip, Harmon and Kain made a first ascent of nearby Mt. Resplendent, 3362 meters. During a future trip Harmon would photograph a party summiting the ridge of Mt. Resplendent, one of his most famous images.

In town, Harmon pursued his civic responsibilities as enthusiastically as he did his photography. After 1908, his business continued to expand and additions and renovations to his commercial building, Harmons, became almost yearly events. He lent his time and energy to many boards and committees and was an outspoken businessman in the community. He garnered a reputation as a quiet, amiable man with a good sense of humour, dedicated to his work, his family, and his town. Portrait work became an active pursuit for Harmon again, as well, and he recorded many famous images of the Stoney Indians both on their reserve at Morley and during the Banff Indian Days celebrations in Banff.

Harmon reached the peak of his career in the early 1920’s. Although by this time his participation with the Alpine Club had petered off, he was organising his own mountaineering trips with purely photographic objectives, allowing him to seek out the ideal situations for mountain photography. As well, his work had gained national and even international recognition.

In 1920, he accompanied Arthur Wheeler to the International Congress of Alpinism in Monaco, one of only four representatives for Canada. By all accounts, his magnificent stills and reels of mountain vistas awed all in attendance. The show was such a success Harmon continued on a lecture tour of Europe and then put on a display on the floor of the House of Commons, selling prints to nearly every Member of Parliament.

byron in cave

The most ambitious and photographically lucrative trip of Harmon’s career was a self-initiated trek across the Columbia Icefield with writer Lewis Freeman in 1924. What made the expedition so impressive was not only the crossing itself but the inclusion of a pack train of 15 horses loaded to the teeth with photographic and motion picture equipment. In one instance of extremely bad weather near the beginning of the trip, Harmon lost,”more supplies in two days than the recent US Geological Survey expedition lost in its three months voyage through the rapids of the Grand Canyon. Even at that, however, we were never seriously handicapped by a shortage either of food or of photographic supplies”1. Also included in the supplies were several carrier pigeons Harmon had bred himself and an early radio device, the intent being to, prove that radio reception was possible in the wilds of the western mountains, and “wanting to see if the pigeons could thread their way through the peaks back to Banff” 2. In both cases the experiments were successful. The trip followed, primarily, the line of the Continental Divide and included many dangerous river crossings as well as the treacherous ice travel. In one extreme case of photographic stoicism, Harmon camped in one spot for eight days waiting for the perfect light on Mt. Columbia. The trip yielded 400 stills, 700 feet. of film, an article for National Geographic, and a book by Freeman entitled On the Roof of the Rockies.

The last years of Harmon’s life were quiet, his asthma and other ailments finally catching up to him. He passed away on July 10th, 1942, at the age of 66. His passing symbolised the end of an era of intensive mountain discovery that had taken place in the first half of the twentieth century. Through his photographs Harmon succeeded in giving the Canadian Rockies to the world and for that he will be remembered for years to come.

1 and 2: On the Roof of the Rockies, Lewis R. Freeman, 1925

Sebastian Hutchings is the great grandson of Byron Harmon


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