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To narrow this down to less than 100 “best” shots seemed an impossible undertaking, but I had a feeling this was the time to do it. To aid in selection, I decided to narrow my focus to only photos taken in what is today the Northwest Territories. Shots from Nunavut and the Yukon were left for another time.

Forty years in the North is a milestone. I was curious to see some of my favourite photos printed, hanging on a wall in chronological order, outlining what I had seen over the years. I was also keen to share these photos with fellow northerners and visitors. The past four decades have been a time of huge changes in the North, and I was curious to see how visible these changes would be in my work.

Cook tent at Thor Lake mineral exploration camp, 1977.
Cook tent at Thor Lake mineral exploration camp, 1977.

I began my experimentation with film in Ottawa, when I was 21 years old and fresh out of university. My first camera, a used Yashica 35 mm with a 50 mm lens, fascinated me and allowed me to believe that even I could look at the world in a special way. I quickly gravitated to black and white film, so as to define my photos, not as snapshots, but as potential art. A course called Basic Darkroom Techniques, taken at the University of California in Davis, armed me with a few rudimentary skills and away I went.

When I drove into Yellowknife on the longest day (June 21) 1975, I had no idea that I was going to make my permanent home here. This was simply an adventure. I quickly discovered that this was a very different world from the one I was used to. Gone was the anonymity of the city. In Yellowknife, everyone said hello. My dreams of being a detached “street photographer” were laid to ruin. As it turned out, everyone I photographed either was a friend, became a friend, or was related to a friend. This still largely holds true today…the North is a small world. So, I simply proceeded to have an adventure and take photographs when I could.

I was particularly interested in “bush life,” and spent many years living in cabins, chasing dogs (euphemism for having a dog team), checking fishnets and meeting an extraordinary cast of characters. Film was hard to come by and I missed countless great shots over those years. In that respect, photography is a lot like fishing…some big ones get away.

I stayed with black and white film to begin, but occasionally splurged on slide film, some of it very poor quality. In 1977, I upgraded to a new camera, an Olympus OM1, the first compact SLR ever made. It was completely manual, which suited my rough lifestyle, and within a year I was even able to purchase a wide-angle lens.

By the mid-eighties, I was firmly converted to colour slide film, mainly Kodachrome, and was indeed beginning to make a small name for myself as a photographer. Opportunities to travel across the North taking photos opened up new worlds. My skills improved slowly but surely.

Judy Lafferty making dry fish, Mackenzie River, 1985.
Judy Lafferty making dry fish, Mackenzie River, 1985.

Photography is a very personal art form. The photo – grapher actually has to be there to take an image and no amount of technological wizardry can honestly replace this. I hope this glimpse into some of my favourite northern photos from the last 40 years will lead viewers to think about what has passed, and what is to come.

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Philip Goulet repairs his canoe while his grandsons watch and learn. Goulet Bay, 1985.

The full exhibit of over 80 photos is on display at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife until the end of September 2015.