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JOAN SULLIVAN: Probabilities and maybes on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland

Book Cover
Book Cover - Contributed

Matthew Hollett looks at a curious photo and events around it

Described as “part art history, part road trip, and part detective story,” “Album Rock” had its genesis in happenstance: a day when poet/essayist Matthew Hollett (a writer with a keen eye for the visual) discovered a photo on the Corner Brook Museum and Archives website.

It was a small image titled “Rocher peint par les marins français (Rock painted by French sailors)”, dated 1857-1859.

“It’s a curious, almost cartoonish scene. French sailors pose with paintbrushes and a ladder, having painted the word ‘Album’ on a large rock in Ship Cove, Sacred Bay, on the great Northern Peninsula. The peculiar word resounds over the water, as if the rock is calling out its name. One hundred and sixty-odd years later, though the paint is long gone, the landmark is still known as Album Rock.”

To Hollett it was a genuine oddity. “Why would anyone write ‘Album’ in enormous letters on a rock, more or less in the middle of nowhere, so long ago? The image looks like a contemporary art performance, an indie rock album cover, a marketing stunt.”

Where exactly is this rock? Can he find the site? Hollett and his friend Rosie hit the highway, “travelling (91,065 kilometres) across a big rock in search of a smaller one.” There are a series of geographic asides, as when, at Gros Morne, Rosie shows him a trilobite fossil “large as a dinner plate,” which is officially unmarked but known to locals.

And there’s historic research to undertake as well. Who was Miot? Seems he was a French naval officer who sailed to Newfoundland five times between 1857 and 1861, with Capt. George-Charles Cloué, who was already experienced with mapping Newfoundland. Miot documented his journeys with photographs, like “St. John’s taken from Signal Hill,” or “View of Captain Georges-Charles Cloué on the deck of the Ardent.”

“Miot was new to photography” — everyone was pretty new to photography  — “but his skills soon proved invaluable to Cloué’s hydrographic work.” Miot also documented the French migratory fishery for his government and took portraits of the Indigenous groups encountered in his various travels, including the Mi’kmaq and Tahitians.

Miot was a peripatetic photographer, and, reflecting this, Hollett’s text is filled with intriguing tacks and tangents. As Hollett traces the photo he finds facts opening into probabilities and maybes. Even the date of the photograph can’t be fixed. “This mysterious provenance is what I love about the photograph, all its possible backstories. Historical photography so often preserves visions of industry or ceremony, much less often moments of idle whimsy. There is a kind of magic realism in the scene. It’s as if Miot managed, somehow, to photograph a dream.”

Miot was a peripatetic photographer, and, reflecting this, Hollett’s text is filled with intriguing tacks and tangents. As Hollett traces the photo he finds facts opening into probabilities and maybes. Even the date of the photograph can’t be fixed.

The story keeps unfolding. The more Hollett looks, the more he perceives. “It starts to feel like a page from ‘Where’s Waldo’ or ‘I Spy: A Book of Picture Riddles’.  When I first came across the tiny image online I counted two figures: the man silhouetted prominently at the top of the rock, and a second man standing above a short ladder, his white shirt easily mistaken for a punctuation mark as he embellishes the letter ‘M’. It is only later that I noticed a third sailor lurking beneath the ‘L’, barely visible except for his collar and a pale staff.”

Hollett’s investigations take him to the National Galley in Ottawa (“I’m escorted to a long, quiet room with tall windows overlooking the Ottawa river”), and into conversation with visual artist Jerry Evans, who used some of Miot’s Mi’kmaq photos in his lithographs (“you can see from the expression on their faces, they don’t look too happy”). He also contextualizes Miot by noting his parallels to Herman Melville (a “fellow chronicler of 19th-cenutry oceans”) and praise from Picasso for Miot’s work (“perfect balance of passion and observation”).

The book includes lots of photos, many of them rare and archival and sepia-toned, others modern and full-coloured, and both types often featured over a two-page spread. There are sketches, and maps and charts. Endnotes include a timeline of Miot’s experiences in Newfoundland, as well as references and image citations. The overall book design is invitingly smooth and sleek.

One of the strongest pleasures of “Album Rock” is that this is a book not just about finding, but also seeing what’s in front of your eyes. How many other people scanned that photo before Hollett, and never gave it a second glance? How many more completely overlooked it? “Album Rock” shows what curiosity can discern, and delve, and share.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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