by | May 6, 2024

Padlei Diary, 1950.  High resolution, tritone reproduction, 2000.


How different book publishers, editors and designers have presented Richard Harrington’s photographs of famine, taken in 1950, in the years since.

Four books containing Richard Harrington’s photographs of Inuit, from four different publishers over 48 years, place his work of 1947-52 in quite different contexts. The pictures do not, as Clifford Wilson states in Northern Exposures, “speak for themselves,” but are mediated by their means of reproduction, layout design, and direction from literary and picture editors and publishers. Thus, in comparison, we gain a perspective on the varied and changing manner in which Intuit identity has been presented and observed.

Title spread with neatly squared-off, early modernist typography, set in Futura fonts. Mixed case is scrupulously avoided—a nod to title page convention—while cleverly incorporating the Bauhausy all-lower case style.

The Face of the Arctic

Richard Harrington, author and photographer
Designed by Robert Goldston

Published by Henry Schuman, Inc., New York, 1952
6½ x 9¾” •  16.5cm x 24cm
Hardcover, 369 pages with dust jacket (missing, not shown).
Several hundred monochrome photographs, printed by halftone offset, 150 line screen.
Title and caption fonts: Futura. Text: Electra, 12/14

This is a travelogue of Harrington’s five trips North, designed in somewhat the manner of picture magazines such as Life, in the USA, and The Standard (later Weekend), in Canada, with feature stories illustrated by captioned photos in dramatic layouts employing plenty of bleed. These publications provided the income of freelance photographers such as Harrington. Not a huge fan of Civilization, he was an adventurer who travelled the world documenting indigenous peoples with his Leica, and developed a special attraction to the desolate environment of the Arctic, and a great respect for its native inhabitants, whom he photographed without stereotypical racial cliché. Ever curious and open-minded, Harrington mentions a young Inuk woman, working as a house servant for a white family, whose avocation was photography, with her own dark room. Now there, too, would be some photographs worth seeing!

On one of the trips he investigated an Inuit community experiencing starvation, and it is the harrowing images of this for which he is best known.

The Face of the Arctic.  Each spread is considered as a unique layout—note the slight gutter by which the photo doesn’t quite reach the spine.

The Face of the Arctic.  Alaq: her portraits are cropped to fit the layout (compare with the same image, reproduced below), and arranged to complement one another. (The mis-alignment is an an artefact of binding.)


Positive, yet patronizing, representation of anonymous Inuit lifestyle in Northern Exposures.

Northern Exposures

Richard Harrington, Clifford Wilson (text and design)
Published by Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., Toronto, 1953.
9 x 11½” •  23cm x 29cm
Hardcover, 119 pages with dust jacket.
13 colour, 81 monochrome photographs, printed by halftone relief block, 133 line screen.
Cover title: Caslon (?). Deck: Sans Serif (Kabel) Bold, letter spaced: 30 pt etc. 
Letterpress text: Kennerley Oldstyle, 12/18, Captions: Sans Serif (Kabel) Bold, 10/12

The emphasis is “pictorial, rather than illustrative,” as noted in Clifford Wilson’s foreword. This book belongs to the genre of ethnographic tourism—publications for the general public satisfying curiosity about faraway people and places, focusing on traditional folk culture and lifestyles—part of the mid-century internationalism expressed in North American film (e.g. Fitzpatrick Traveltalks), Viewmaster reels, books, and mass market magazines such as National Geographic, Life, Holiday, Look, and Macleans, which found its most idealistic expression in The Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955, curated by Edward Steichen. Northern Exposures follows the post World War II trend in Canadian media* of publicizing the diversity of immigrant and indigenous peoples in this country, which led to the institutionalization of multiculturalism by the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the 1960s.

Inuit in Northern Exposures are all smiling and/or productively engaged. None of the famine photographs are included. One cannot fault Harrington for the photographic clichés, his work covered the gamut. The selection here supports the ethos of the time, represented by the “cheerful didacticism”** of the National Film Board, as well as the market sensibility of picture editors in books and magazines—Harrington’s clients. But that would change.

The cheerful 1953 treatment of Northern Exposures (left) is superseded by the severe reportage of The Inuit: Life as it Was in 1981.

The Inuit: Life as it Was

Richard Harrington, photography and text.
Designed by David Shaw.
Hurtig Publishers, Edmonton, 1981
8½ x 11″    21cm x 28cm
Soft cover, 144 pages
150 single colour monochrome halftones throughout, printed by offset lithography, 133 line screen.
Cover type: Serif Gothic Bold and Black. Captions: ITC Garamond, 11/11.

This is more trenchant, from Edmonton publisher and nationalist Mel Hurtig, best known for The Canadian Encyclopedia (1985). It’s a compilation of Harrington’s Inuit photographs of 1947–53, taken from the National Archives (now Library and Archives Canada), selected by him. It reverses the structure of Life in the Arctic, this time with understated text playing second fiddle to the pictures, in those spreads which do have text (many don’t). There are no bleeds, and thus the alignment of text blocks is determined by the picture edges to which they are closely “snapped”, in the implied grid of the International Typographic Style. This is mid-century modernism, with ragged text and asymmetric layouts, a much more systematic style of modernity than that of The Face of the Arctic, and more minimal and rigorously applied than in Northern Exposures.

Compare how Northern Exposures’ jolly colour reproduction of a hunter showing off dozens of fox pelts is described as “destined for the sumptuous fur salons of Europe and America…” This same shoot is brought down to earth in the Hurtig book, in black and white, accompanied by Harrington’s sobering commentary explaining how the market for furs and narwhal tusks had corrupted the ecosystem in which Inuit subsisted on a diet of hunted meat, with the animals now killed by gun, their saleable assets removed and flesh left to rot. Today, although Inuit cuisine is thriving, Inuit diet has transitioned, succumbing to the high sugar and high fat the rest of us consume, with two-thirds of their population obese.

Harrington recognized the unique opportunity, for a photojournalist, of recording an indigenous culture that was still significantly unaffected by contact with advanced civilization, and documenting the effects of that contact.

As a photojournalist, Harrington had two main motivations, apart from his taste for adventure. Firstly, to document and contribute, to the common body of knowledge, what people, places and events look like, adding something to the understanding of life on Earth and the human condition. “To show the world as it is,” in the words of Alfred Eisenstadt. The second was “to get the shot”—the iconic image that will astound everyone who sees it, forever; and more immediately, to impress publishers who might be willing to pay for the privilege of reproducing it. Therefore, because nothing is worse than an uninteresting picture, the photojournalist is trade-bound to dramatize the subject, whatever it is, using tropes established by writers and artists from time immemorial: the factual, the picturesque, the shocking, the humorous, the cute, the sexy, the narrative, and so on.

Inuit children lavished with affection and magnificent attire. Spread from The Inuit: Life as it Was.

For instance, Harrington’s photos of Inuit children’s clothing are a factual record of fabric, construction and decoration, and, with the subject close cropped by snow and sky, they are also highly aesthetic images, sharing such qualities with contemporary infinity cove fashion shots taken by Richard Avedon for the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. They also allude to a tradition of full-figure portraiture against a plain background, from William Notman in the 19th century through August Sander in the early 20th century to Phillippe Halsman’s “Jump” series in the 1950s. A classic graphic arrangement, shapes upon the page.

Amongst its assembly of different genres, The Inuit: Life as it Was includes the incident in 1950 when Harrington visited a community of Inuit, during a winter in which the expected migration of caribou, upon which they depended for food, had failed to materialize, and they were starving, with the old and weak starving to death. This he dutifully recorded, while doing what he could to help them survive.

Padlei Diary, 1950 (right) presents Harrington’s photo of Alaq as a richly modeled image, compared to The Inuit: Life as it Was, (left) in which it has a high contrast newsiness, with basic reproduction and unfussy quality that communicate a quite different, ostensibly dispassionate sense of reality, but nonetheless with dramatic cropping.

Padlei Diary, 1950

Richard Harrington
Published by Rock Foundation, 2000
Designed by Edmund Carpenter, Jerry Kelly, and Betsy Peare
Hard cover, with silver dust jacket and grey slip case, 112 pages.
Printed offset by the Stinehour Press in black, two greys and orange, with 63 tritones.
11 x 12″ •  28cm x 30.4cm
Text: Sabon, 13/20

The fourth book is solely about that famine of 1950, accompanying Harrington’s photography with text from his contemporary diary. It’s a large coffee-table volume in a slip case, beautifully designed with spare use of well-leaded text, solid grey inks and lots of graphic “white space” on high quality paper stock to showcase the photographs, which are tritones that bring out the full tonal range of Harrington’s images.

It’s disturbing to view the awful predicament of the Padlei inhabitants, even as one appreciates the brilliant concept of combining the sequence of photos with Harrington’s as-it-happens diary entries, synergizing image and text in print, recreating the experience, as far as possible, with great immediacy, of being there. Even as one enjoys the artistry of the photos which record it, and the opulent quality of the reproduction that viscerally enhances the empathy one feels for the victims of cruel fate, a glamorization, if not voyeurism, appealing to the morbid curiosity from which no one is immune. Such is the nature of that most venerable of art forms, tragedy.

More photographs of the resolutely photogenic Alaq. The ample space around the photos in the layout of Padlei Diary, 1950 draws the viewer into an aesthetic relationship with each precious image, connecting instinctively with the subject through the sticky and tactile quality of its subtle and complex tonalities and visual textures, the deep reality of fine printing, of analogue media in the real world, in a book that one can weigh in one’s hands.


*In 1941, the Director of Public Information, with the aid of the newly created National Film Board, set the tone for a multicultural Canada with a program of national unity propaganda that, in response to Nazi racism, highlighted the ethnic diversity of Canadians, detailed, country of origin by country of origin, in the primer booklet Canadians All, and in the motion picture Peoples of Canada.

**Payne, Carol (2013). The Official Picture: The National Film Board of Canada’s Still Photography Division and the Image of Canada, 1941–1971. McGill–Queen’s University Press.