Early Victoria biologist’s photo collection documents a different era

Documentary filmmaker Ramsey Fendall in the lab of his grandfather, the UVic biology professor Jeffree Cunningham, in South Oak Bay. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)
Documentary filmmaker Ramsey Fendall and local historian Ben Clinton-Baker are sorting through the rich archive of photos and slides from Fendall’s grandfather, the UVic biology professor Jeffree Cunningham. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)
Jeffree Cunningham, right, circa 1915 on Discovery Island with teachers from Central School. (Jeffree Cunningham Archive)

Local documentary filmmaker Ramsey Fendall doesn’t just use his grandfather’s basement lab in the 110-year-old house on Hazel Street, he still shares it with him.

In spirit, that is, as the renowned University of Victoria biology professor Jeffree Cunningham died in 1974 at the age of 88.

On one shelf of the darkroom are Cunningham’s odd-shaped glassware of flasks, beakers and test-tubes. On another shelf are jars of chemicals that once held specimens, and are detailed in Cunningham’s fine yet spidery, cursive writing.

“Some of these [labels] are from 1904, [when] he was 18,” Fendall says as he holds up an empty jar displaying more of Cunningham’s writing. “He was already naming things in Latin.”

Documentary filmmaker Ramsey Fendall in the lab of his grandfather, the UVic biology professor Jeffree Cunningham, in South Oak Bay.

(Travis Paterson/News Staff)

It’s fitting, as the 49-year-old Fendall’s career is as a documentary filmmaker who also uses film, and who continues to use a dark room that is at least 70 years old.

Fendall recently returned to Oak Bay and inherited the house after his mom’s death, and is in the midst of archiving hundreds of his father’s photo slides of nature, and of First Nations people and places from 1914 until he died. To do so, he’s enlisted help from local historian Ben Clinton-Baker.

The two have a view to create a documentary project, but are still not sure of the scope of what it will be, and how it will tell Cunningham’s story. As a young man, Cunningham taught at Central School and studied, then lectured, at Victoria College (which was Vic High). Later, he added photography to his repertoire.

“It’s far too rich and personal material to turn over to [archives],” Fendall said. “I’m in the same house where I remember as a child these boxes of slides. I remember thinking, ‘Look at all those slides,’…. One day I realized, I have to do something with the slides.”

READ ALSO: Once upon a time, by the bay in Oak Bay

Cunningham was a true talent, and he involved himself in many aspects of early settler life in Oak Bay and Victoria, said Fendall, who shows up in some of the photos as a toddler. What really flipped Fendall’s switch into project-mode was a chance meeting with local Oak Bay historian Ben Clinton-Baker, who is helping sort through the slides, but also meeting current Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary Chief David Mungo Knox, the great-grandson of Mungo Martin, the renowned Kwakwaka’wakw artist.

As Fendall sorted through the slides and began digitalizing them, he came upon many casual photos of Cunningham and Lucy, his grandmother, relaxing with Martin. They were so close, Martin requested Cunningham take photos of the reopening ceremony of Wawaditla, or Thunderbird Park, next to the Royal British Columbia Museum in 1952.

That coincided with the lift of the potlatch ban, and as a result, Cunningham’s collection bears many rare photos of First Nations people dancing in Martin’s intricately carved masks (Martin also has several poles on display at the Wawaditla), photos which are now considered sacred and not for public display.

“When I met Chief Knox I was like, ‘My grandfather and your [great] grandfather used to be friends, and I have a lot of photos of your grandfather,’” Fendall said. “He recognized the masks as Mungo’s.”

Not all the photos are sensitive. For the first years Cunningham focused mostly on seaweed and sealife. Later, he grew to document local First Nations but also travelled up and down the Island, visiting such First Nations as the Kwakwaka’wakw. Some are of Martin and other artists carving. Some are of longhouses in the Songhees and Esquimalt areas that no longer exist.

“He also had a thing for the ‘shack,’ photos of dilapidated buildings set in nature,” Fendall said.

During his own studies, Clinton-Baker focused on another Victoria naturalist, Charles Newcomb, and it turns out the two crossed paths. Newcomb helped get the RBCM started but now has a controversial legacy as he collected, bought and sold native artifacts from the Island and around the world, Clinton-Baker said.

Fendall found an obituary for Cunningham in the Natural History Society journal that linked the two.

“They would go out together, in Newcomb’s [hand-built] boat, collecting artifacts and taking photos,” Fendall said.

READ MORE: Great-grandson of original carver to restore poles at RBCM in Victoria

Fendall is unsure when the Cunningham house was built, but he’s the fourth generation to live in it. Oak Bay records only go back to 1912. The first mention of title is from 1918 in the name of his great-grandfather Robert who worked for Hudson’s Bay Company.

The context of starting a project now has to include a reparative lens, especially with how close Cunningham got to First Nations culture and how he witnessed and documented it, Fendall noted. He added that while Cunningham’s ethnographic approach is outdated now, he also understood what was happening.

“He was ahead of his time, he knew the damage that had been inflicted on First Nations [by settlers], and was strong on his views about things,” Fendall said.

That included a level of shame regarding his father Robert’s role with HBC, perhaps for his role in the colonial desecration of First Nations.

Cunningham was also a visionary. In his 1972 commencement speech for the Arthur Erikson-designed building named for him at UVic, Cunningham was quoted on “ecology” and “environment.”

“He called out pollution, and [said] that we stand to be destroyed [as a species] unless we shift our ecological record,” Fendall said.

Visit Clinton-Baker’s and Ramsey’s website on Cunningham at www.thecunninghamarchive.org/documentary.

reporter@oakbaynews.com

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