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The Image Recovery Project: Building Cultural Knowledge

MOA is excited to announce a new online collection of nearly 3,000 images from the archives. This searchable collection features scanned infrared photographs of historical Indigenous Northwest Coast painted belongings, taken as part of MOA’s Image Recovery Project. This online collection was developed as a way to share this unsurpassed resource with Indigenous artists and community members as well as other researchers and scholars invested in the study and revitalization of Northwest Coast painting.

Jacquie Gijssen photographing a bentwood box, ca. 1983. MOA Archives image a060327.

The Image Recovery Project arose from the urgent need of current generations of First Nations artists and community members to gain access to the creative achievements of their ancestors and to build on the cultural knowledge that the old paintings could reveal. The ravenous collecting by outsiders of Northwest Coast artworks, coupled with devastating population decline and the suppression of traditional Indigenous ceremony and cultural practice, eventually left only a remnant of this rich material heritage in British Columbia.

Infrared photograph of Haisla bentwood box A3576 in MOA’s collection. Photo by Bill McLennan and Mila Cotic. 

In 1984, designer and curator Bill McLennan began photographing Northwest Coast painted boxes and chests with infrared film as part of his extraordinary Image Recovery Project. The project’s goal was to use photographic techniques to “see” beneath the patina of age (“layers of time and grime,” as he called it) that obscures many of the painted images on objects and belongings now residing in museums and private collections around the world. His Image Recovery Project, carried out at MOA in collaboration with First Nations artist-researchers and students, offered revelatory access to the creative vision of the ancestors. The application of infrared photography helped to bring attention to the displacement of these artworks and bring the objects’ inventive compositions back into view, some for the first time in over a century.

*Canoe-steering paddle, attributed to the Haida. MOA A7526.

Many of the images were first exhibited at MOA in 1992 in the exhibition The Transforming Image. In 2000, several hundred of the photographs were published with new research and commentary by McLennan and Karen Duffek in their book The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations. In 2022, after the book had long been out of print and its images were increasingly difficult to access, MOA published a second edition. The book’s new edition gave impetus to expanding the impact of the Image Recovery Project by finding a way to make the full collection of infrared photographs available in digitized form for easier study, comparison, and enlargement. There are nearly 3,000 infrared negatives of over 600 artworks from the Image Recovery Project in the MOA Archives and these were systematically scanned to archival standards. Most of the negatives are infrared, but the project photographers also used high-contrast black-and-white film in combination with unique lighting to bring out details in some pieces. Read more about the photographic techniques on the Image Recovery Project website.

If you have questions or would like to learn more about this collection, contact MOA Archives at archives@moa.ubca.ca.

Image credits:

Banner image: Bill McLennan photographing a bentwood chest, ca. 1983. MOA Archives image a035999.
*Image A7526 shows how infrared photography can bring out details no longer visible on a painted object. The canoe paddle blade on the left is the original, shot with standard film. The center image is the same paddle, shot with infrared film. Infrared photography brings out the elements of the painting: fine lines and cross-hatching, bolder compositional lines, and broad areas of solid black. On the right is the “recovered” image, painted on mylar by Bill McLennan.