December 20, 2010
Way Down North features Fr. René Fumoleau’s photo from his life as a missionary.

Way Down North features Fr. René Fumoleau’s photo from his life as a missionary.

MICHAEL SWAN
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

What makes Father René Fumoleau’s photography worth looking at is just where the missionary priest from France took his photos.

Fumoleau showed up in the Dene lands straddling the Arctic Circle in 1953. He bought his first Pentax 35 mm camera in 1956. Without training or direction, he created a body of images that document the land and its people over 40 critical years of history for the Dene, all captured in a new book.

In her introduction to Fumoleau’s Way Down North: Dene Life — Dene Land, Bernadette Gasslein claims “Beauty is the raison d’etre of this book.”

The pictures, many shot under a high sun and infused with deeply saturated colours, are beautiful. But there’s more to it than pretty pictures.

There are better landscape photographers and better portraitists than Fumoleau. Fumoleau documents dog sled teams, cultural festivals, elders and family life among the Dene in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. It’s all framed in the context of the land — its forests, its lakes, its tundra and the elusive sun.

In each photograph Fumoleau is inviting us to be present, just as he was present, in the land. This is incarnational photography, from a man who gave his life to the idea that a Christian is called to incarnate Christ in every place, in every culture and in every time. That’s what missionaries do.

CREATION AND PRESENCE

It’s also what photographers do when their lens searches for the soul of the scene.

When Gasslein says, “beauty is the raison d’etre” she states the obvious. We should ask, “Why? What makes these photographs beautiful?”

PHOTOGRAPHY WASN’T FUMOLEAU’S JOB.

He never perfected the million techniques and tricks of professional photographers. His job as a missionary was to be present as a Christian and to make Christ present among the Dene people. It’s thanks to his ability to be truly present in the land and to the people that Fumoleau’s photographs work.

Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins always claimed Christ was the “instress” — the secret, sub-atomic stuff — that bound creation and beauty together.

In Way Down North Fumoleau shows us what Hopkins might have done with a camera.