Interview with Dr. Colleen Skidmore on Her New Book “Searching for Mary Schäffer: Women Wilderness Photography”
By Cathie Crooks, MBA
Associate Director / Manager Planning & Operations, University of Alberta Press
On September 28, Searching for Mary Schäffer: Women Wilderness Photography, by photo historian and University of Alberta Professor Colleen Skidmore, was launched at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff. On December 7, Dr. Skidmore will present a talk about the book during UAlberta’s Mountain Festival. This is the latest volume in the Mountain Cairns series published by the University of Alberta Press. Interim UAP Director Cathie Crooks talked with the author about her new book.
Your book is an engrossing examination of Mary Schäffer’s creative work and public roles in Philadelphia’s science and photography communities, and the scientific, tourist, and Indigenous societies of the Canadian Rockies. Who was Mary Schäffer and what does the book explore?
Mary Schäffer was a photographer, writer, botanical painter, and mapmaker from Philadelphia, who was well known in the US, Canada, and the UK for her travels in the Canadian Rockies and Japan at the turn of the twentieth century.
In Searching for Mary Schäffer, I take up and examine Schäffer’s own themes—women and wilderness, travel and science—through an array of historical materials preserved in public and private archival collections in the United States and Canada.
How does it differ from previous work, popular and scholarly, on Schäffer?
My study looks at how and why a particular idea of Mary Schäffer was shaped in popular and academic studies between 1980 and 2015 in comparison to how Schäffer shaped her own identity between 1900 and 1912—and how this displaced the historical significance of her scientific and creative work in the mountains by focusing on an imagined personality based on a gendered stereotype.
With a different understanding of Schäffer derived from analysis of historical evidence, much of which is new in this book, I also look at how Schäffer formed for her readers a particular idea of the Canadian Rockies and wilderness by means of her narratives, photos, botanical studies, and maps.
What can readers expect to discover?
There is an abundance of historical materials and issues that make possible a serious, insightful, and respectful study of Schäffer’s work, which it needs and deserves. Schäffer did not travel, photograph, paint, or write alone in the mountains. Other women and men, and even children, were always involved, and she named and credited them. As it turns out, many of these colleagues and companions can be traced in archive and library collections. Their records complement, corroborate, or contradict Schäffer’s narratives, making it possible to construct a detailed, nuanced, and complex context for Schäffer’s public persona and her published works, and to reach new views on their impact and continuing significance.
Why, then, is this study relevant today?
It may be 2017, but writing about women and, in this case, their creative and scientific practices as well as their life stories, remains challenging and urgent. Women have always played significant roles in history, whether or not their presence was later acknowledged or ignored. By seeking their names and examining their activities, much can be learned about an array of issues, ideas, times, and places.
Mary Schäffer’s work is relevant today to a range of fields that are examining women and social structures, the environment and human histories, global colonization and Indigenous societies, and the construction of knowledge and meaning in visual and written work, both creative and documentary.
The University of Alberta recognized her significance in 2003 by naming an undergraduate residence after her.
Did you find Mary Schäffer?
That’s a tempting question. But I hope that readers will feel as though they are travelling alongside me on the search, and so I’ll leave that one for them to answer.