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Robert J. Flaherty fonds (P439)

1910-1920. - 8 cm of textual records. - 46 photographs : prints, lantern slides ; b&w.

Administrative History - Biographical Sketch:

Robert J. Flaherty, photographer/filmmaker, was born on 16 February 1884 at Iron Mountain, Michigan. He was the son of a respected figure in iron-ore exploration in Canada. His grandfather was an Irish Protestant who emigrated to Québec in the late 1840s. Robert J. Flaherty's childhood was spent in the mining areas of Minnesota and Michigan, and in small mining communities in Ontario. His formal education was haphazard and brief. He attended both Upper Canada College and the Michigan College of Mines for short periods of time.

Flaherty based himself in Port Arthur (Thunder Bay) and travelled across Canada as a surveyor and prospector. At the age of 26 he was introduced by his father to Sir William Mackenzie, who commissioned him to explore the Nastapoka Islands off the east coast of Hudson Bay, looking for iron-ore deposits. It was this commission, the first of four, that changed Flaherty's life. He was thrust into the politics and controversy surrounding exploration in the Canadian Arctic. He also found himself living with an Inuit band and dependent on their expertise for his survival.

During the four Mackenzie expeditions (1910-1911, 1911-1912, 1913-1914 and 1915-1916), Robert J. Flaherty took close to a thousand photographs.

By the time of his Baffin Island (1913-1914) and Belcher Islands (1915-1916) expeditions, Flaherty was using film as well as photography to document the Inuit. During this period he used both media equally successfully. However, by the 1920-1921 expedition to Port Harrison (Inukjuak) for Revillon Frères to film Nanook of the North, Flaherty was focusing almost exclusively on film. His portraits from this period are generally less forceful, and much of his photographic work appears oriented toward the production of the film. After the release of Nanook of the North (1922), Flaherty took few photographs. Most later photographic work during production - which sometimes functioned as the script for films such as Maona (1926), Man of Aran (1934) and Louisiana Story (1948) - was carried out by his wife, Frances Hubbard Flaherty.

In 1915, however, Flaherty's commitment to his photographs was considerable. A public exhibition was arranged at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto in 1915. The photographs were also shown at the premiere of Flaherty's (first) 1914 film about Baffin Island held on 30 March 1915 in Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto. Flaherty won the Mussolini Cup for Best Foreign Film at the Venice Film Festival for Man of Aran (1934) and was nominated for best Writing - Motion Picture Story at the Oscars (1948) for Louisiana Story (a nomination he shared with his wife). Flaherty died on 23 July 1951.

(Source: Robert Flaherty: Photographer / Filmmaker: The Inuit 1910-1922. Exhibition catalogue. Vancouver Art Gallery, 1979.)

Scope and Content:

The Robert J. Flaherty fonds consists of photographs taken by or attributed to Flaherty, a book written by Robert J. Flaherty and Frances Hubbard Flaherty, and prints published by Revillon Frères.

The photographic component deals with geological formations and various aspects of life in the North such as the landscape, animal life, transportation, life in the settlements and fur-trading posts as well as a series of portraits of the Inuit.