Dec. 3, 2018

New digital collection shares story of Banff through iconic postcards of Byron Harmon

On Dec. 13, learn more about the historic photographer’s visual record of mountain culture


Rob Alexander, Libraries and Cultural Resources

“If Harmon’s photographs have an easy familiarity, it’s probably because for years the standard views of the Rockies and Selkirks were his, broadcast to the world by postcard, viewbook, and hand-tinted framing prints. His informed eye has largely shaped our perceptions of Canada’s western mountains. Landscape photography was central to his development as a mountain photographer.”  -  Jon Whyte, Banff poet and writer

After a long soak in the hot mineral waters at Banff in 1903, photographer Byron Harmon, then 27, formulated a plan to open Banff’s first photo studio. It took him a few years to follow through on this idea, but by 1906 he was in business.

He quickly built an extensive postcard collection of hundreds of views of Banff and the Canadian Rocky Mountains that are today both highly collectable and an important visual record. Many of the region’s most iconic photographs are his.

And with the launch of the digital side of the Brian Mazza Mountain Studies collection — the newest digital collection in Libraries and Cultural Resources (LCR) — high-resolution digital versions of Harmon’s postcards are now available to the campus community and beyond.

Alumnus Brian Mazza, who graduated in 1988 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, was driven by two great passions: mountains and journalism. He worked as a reporter at The Gauntlet newspaper while at the university. After graduation, he became editor at the newspaper his family owned in Rocky Mountain House, The Mountaineer. When he wasn’t working or volunteering, Mazza could be found outside among the mountains.

Mazza passed away in 2007 at the age of 46. He left LCR an endowment that would support the collection and digitization of materials related to mountain studies across a broad range of fields such as culture, history, science and sports.

Annie Murray, associate university librarian for Archives and Special Collections, says the Byron Harmon postcards are a perfect fit for the Mountain Studies collection and an ideal place to start the digital collection.

“Byron Harmon is one of the main visual chroniclers of the Rocky Mountains, so I wanted to get as close to original Harmon sources as I could and the photo postcards have the most authenticity,” says Murray. “They just have that great connection to Harmon himself because they would have been produced during his lifetime.”

Murray acquired a collection of about 1,200 Harmon postcards in early 2017. The postcards, 688 of which are unique images, were scanned and catalogued. The postcards, says Murray, can tell us much about Banff and the Rocky Mountains, including how the Rockies have changed and how our relationship to the mountains and the national parks has evolved.

“The postcards offer a snapshot of what Alberta looked like in decades long past and so we’re talking about shrinking glaciers and the changes that have taken place in the past in terms of tourism, sports and our relationship with wild animals,” she says. “I’m very interested in mountain culture and how these mountain towns came about, and in Harmon’s role in creating our sense of mountain town life.”

Murray says Harmon’s postcards are of interest to those exploring the Rockies over time from the early- to mid-1900s and scholars studying ecology, history and tourism.

Harmon postcards aside, the Brian Mazza Mountain Studies collection also includes maps, literature, the accounts of explorers and mountaineers, and other ephemera such as brochures and personal photographs.

Mountain Studies: The Postcards of Byron Harmon – A special Nickle at Noon lecture

Byron Harmon’s collection of photo postcards is one of the most important visual records of Banff and the Canadian Rockies. Join Harmon’s granddaughter Carole Harmon and LCR staff for a discussion about Harmon’s photography and his legacy.

  • Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018
  • 12 to 1 p.m.
  • Gallery Hall, Taylor Family Digital Library