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Review: Searching for Mary Schäffer


Reviewed by Tera Swanson

Colleen Skidmore’s latest book, Searching for Mary Schäffer, explores the life and works of one of the Rockies’ most famous mountain women, and in the process sheds new light on Schäffer’s persona, the stories that comprised her exciting life, and the people who crossed her path along the way.

Camp at Maligne Lake, 1908, Mary Schäffer hand-tinted lantern slide, WMCR V527/PS1-69

Reading a book by its cover, one might expect a simplistic read from Searching for Mary Schäffer – Women Wilderness Photography. For starters, I expected a narrative focusing on the storytelling of her photography alone. But Colleen Skidmore encompasses this and so much more in her recent publication profiling this remarkable Canadian Rockies historical figure.

As a mountain enthusiast who enjoys reading about local history, I was excited to get my hands on this book to learn more about Mary Schäffer, a woman widely regarded as a leading female pioneer of Rockies exploration. Schäffer and her travel companions paved the way in breaking down the expectations of what was appropriate for women at that point in history, and what they could achieve.

Skidmore notes in the book: “Schäffer and Adams, and the circle of women with whom they travelled and photographed can be counted among those ‘accomplished women’ who, literary Carolyn G. Heilbrun writes, ‘were educated enough to have had a choice and brave enough to have made one.’”

Both then and today, the backgrounds of individuals who enjoyed Shäffer’s work are as varied as her very own interests: botany, exploration, surveying, Indigenous culture, photography, and writing. But until recent decades, much of the forefront literature on prominent individuals weaved throughout Banff’s history was dedicated to men, and when written about women, was done so with the lens of the societal norms and ways of thinking of that time.

Skidmore is a social historian of photography, and with this perspective she examines Schäffer’s influence. From this publication, you can expect a feminist, academic and analytical approach to discovering Schäffer. Skidmore deliberately avoids placing her own assumptions and personal narrative on the events of Schäffer’s life, as has been done several times before, particularly with patriarchal viewpoints that were more openly applied in past decades.

Skidmore uncovers literary biases in both the writing of various authors exploring Schäffer’s work, as well as work by Schäffer herself. In the latter, she examines the social constructs which would have affected the filters and embellishments employed in Schäffer’s writing style and craft. For a woman who had no (known) personal diaries of her own, it’s difficult to gain a true essence of who she was outside of her carefully crafted voice in her written work. Published or not, it seems she nearly always intended for the writing to have an audience.

Mountain Raspberry, 1903, Mary Schäffer watercolour. WMCR Art Collection ScM.05.16

Throughout the book, Skidmore unpacks several fallacies in previous interpretations of Schäffer’s life, character, writing and photography. Pairing these commonly misconstrued ‘facts’ and assumptions with thorough research on existing literature – as well as newly examined material – Skidmore brings forth a new layer to the reconstruction of Schäffer’s character and meaning of her work.

For example, Skidmore re-examines the relationship between Schäffer and her companion Molly Adams – one often romanticized in literature as an immediately inseparable friendship. Yet in a letter to her sister dated October 23, 1904, Adams provides her first impressions of Schäffer: “Mrs. Schäffer is the kind of lady who likes to manage things, and is awfully nice to you when she likes you…. I think she probably liked me because I admired her photos and water colours for illustrations so much and told her so. You would not like her at all probably, but I always get on with the kind of person with a slightly sport tendency, and  way of making the men stand around.”

Through personal letters like these from Adams, and Schäffer’s fond descriptions of Adams in her published works, a more human and historically factual account emerges. Skidmore examines the possible societal pressures and motivations behind the women in these circles as an explanation for everything, from their opinions of one another to the choices they made and the work they produced.

Skidmore moves beyond symiotics to interpret what messages we can find in Schäffer’s famous hand-painted slides or watercolour paintings, or the literal, face-value meaning in her writing. She puts these pieces of history in the context of the time in which they were produced – from the part factual, part fictitious style of Schäffer’s writing in the accounts of her adventures to the social climate around the photographing, publishing, and presenting of Schäffer’s most memorable images.

Tera Swanson is a freelance writer and graduate from Mount Royal University’s Journalism undergraduate program. Whether laced into hiking boots or clipped into skis, her favourite way to explore the mountains is on her own two feet. She’s always up for anything that will end in the telling of a good story; be it through photography, from pen to paper, or over a locally brewed amber ale.

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.

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