Bert Rigall’s Greater Waterton: A Conservation Legacy

By Jeff Doherty

Edited by Beth Towe Fifth House publishers 2018/$60.00/312 pp.

When well-known early 20th-century Banff photographer Byron Harmon was roving the central Rockies around Banff, capturing his now-iconic black and white images, a lesser-known contemporary was doing the same work farther south in the Waterton Lakes region. His name was Bert Riggall (1884–1959). While on a grand tour in 1904, away from his native England, Riggall discovered Waterton and settled permanently in the area, where he built a successful outfitting business, spearheaded conservation efforts and generously shared his knowledge of the region’s natural history. Photography was his passion. He amassed a collection of over 14,000 images, many of them high alpine panoramas. The bulk of those are housed in the archives at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

With Greater Waterton, editor Beth Towe brings the most remarkable of those 14,000 images to readers in a large, glossy coffee table book that features 14 short essays by notable Alberta authors and conservation experts inspired by Rigall’s legacy. Banff’s Harvey Locke, for example, outlines how the Flathead Wild conservation campaign in British Columbia’s Flathead Valley advocates to bring greater protection to an area where hikers today traverse alpine ridges and scree slopes on trails built a century ago by Riggall. Similarly, in the Castle region, Dave Sheppard discusses ongoing concerns about off-highway vehicle use in the newly created Castle parks—an area once part of Riggall’s outfitting territory. On the eastern border of Waterton Lakes National Park, where Riggall homesteaded, Larry Simpson recalls how the Nature Conservancy of Canada purchased conservation easements on private ranching lands to prevent subdivision homes adjacent to the park. It was a novel idea in the late 1990s, one that proved there is merit in “conserving nature in Canada by conserving working lands.”

Despite the timely essays, Riggall’s photography remains front and centre. Only a few text-only pages are encountered, and there are 34 two-page spreads of Riggall’s panoramas, taken with a Kodak Panorama No. 1 during the 1910s. Many of these are from alpine perches that few people visit even today.

Greater Waterton avoids academic discussions that would problematize Riggall and his work. There is almost no critical discussion here about how the photographer “sees” or on what he chooses to include and exclude from the frame. This is not to say that Riggall and his work could not be subjected to such an analysis, but that would be a different project. Here, editor Beth Towe brings general readers a unique, high-quality collection that instills respect for the land and a stronger sense of place.

Jeffrey Doherty is a writer in Lethbridge.

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