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 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)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)
Early Victoria biologist’s photo collection documents a different era
Early Victoria biologist’s photo collection documents a different era
Early Victoria biologist’s photo collection documents a different era
Jeffree Cunningham, right, circa 1915 on Discovery Island with teachers from Central School. (Jeffree Cunningham Archive)Jeffree Cunningham, right, circa 1915 on Discovery Island with teachers from Central School. (Jeffree Cunningham Archive)
Early Victoria biologist’s photo collection documents a different era
Early Victoria biologist’s photo collection documents a different era
Early Victoria biologist’s photo collection documents a different era
Early Victoria biologist’s photo collection documents a different era
Early Victoria biologist’s photo collection documents a different era
Early Victoria biologist’s photo collection documents a different era
Early Victoria biologist’s photo collection documents a different era

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

Just Posted

Elaine Kirwin in her Expedia Cruises office talks about the future of travel. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)
Sidney travel agency charts course through pandemic

Owner of Expedia Cruises in Sidney expects smooth sailing ahead once travel restrictions lift

Oak Bay Rotary Club member Lorna Curtis takes over as District Governor of Rotary District 5020 on July 1. (Courtesy Lorna Curtis)
Former Oak Bay recreation director goes international with Rotary

Lorna Curtis takes over as district governor on July 1

Police are asking opponents of logging near Port Renfrew not to involve their children following additional arrests Saturday. (Black Press Media File)
Police arrest eight protesters including two minors near Port Renfrew Saturday

RCMP ask parents not to involve their children in Fairy Creek logging protests

Deep Cove Elementary School principal Shelley Hardcastle (right) and vice-principal Mary Kaercher help to restock Reay Creek with fish – in this case, coho fry – after a recent bleach spill killed hundreds of fish. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
North Saanich’s Deep Cove Elementary School helps to restock Sidney’s Reay Creek

Restocking followed bleach spill that killed hundreds of fish in creek

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: B.C. family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

A logging truck carries its load down the Elaho Valley near in Squamish, B.C. in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
Squamish Nation calls for old-growth logging moratorium in its territory

The nation says 44% of old-growth forests in its 6,900-square kilometre territory are protected while the rest remain at risk

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

Most Read