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Exhibit puts northern life on display

Lomen photo collection shows life in Alaska in early 20th century

By: Scott Hayes

  |  Posted: Saturday, Apr 13, 2013 06:00 am

MEAT RUN – Inuit people haul reindeer meat from Cape Prince of Wales to Nome, Alaska in the early 1900s.
MEAT RUN – Inuit people haul reindeer meat from Cape Prince of Wales to Nome, Alaska in the early 1900s.

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Before now, the names Carl, Harry, Alfred and Ralph Lomen were probably mostly unknown in St. Albert. Now, the photographer brothers should gain a bit more popularity, thanks to a new exhibit of their historic photographs from way north and from decades long past.

Arctic Life: Lomen Brothers Photography is a collection of images from the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. The Lomens were a family of Minnesotans who, like so many others, went north with tales of the gold rush dancing in their heads. Once in Nome, Alaska, however, they realized that quicker riches were to be had in taking compelling pictures of the interesting people of the area.

Curator Joanne White said this show is practically the sister exhibit to last year’s In Focus, a display of photographs from the Alberta and Montana frontiers between 1870 and 1930, practically the same time period as this one.

“They were produced at the same time and they’re very similarly structured. I think the Glenbow actually showed them together originally,” she said.

“They’re just phenomenal pictures. There is so much to see in them, everything from what the lifestyle was like in that area at the time to their business ventures. We’ve just been enthralled with the clothing and the houses and the faces.”

There are some incomparable images here, the likes of which have never been seen in St. Albert.

There’s a group of walrus approaching an ice floe. An Inuit wedding procession. The costumes of the Wolf Dance of the Kaviagamutes of Alaska. The Inuit and Siberian Yuit people with facial tattoos for the women and lip labret piercings for the men. Some of them have incredible hair and they all have interesting clothing, often a mix between traditional and then contemporary styles and fabrics.

“It’s just one exhibit that you really want to come and look at all the details,” White said. “That’s the thing about early glass plate negatives. The quality was so great that when you do blow them up you can see all of this amazing detail.”

What’s even more fascinating and intriguing for local audiences is that these brothers had never picked up a camera before in their lives. Coming from Wisconsin might have prepared them for the rugged cold conditions, but cameras, especially those early cameras, didn’t appreciate being exposed to such low temperatures.

“They learned to operate this equipment in incredible conditions and out on ice floes to get all these pictures, and they really had no training before they bought the studio,” White said.

In addition to their photographic business, the Lomens also bought a drugstore and mounted a reindeer meat operation, achieving much success as the dominant reindeer meat and hide exporter throughout the United States.

Rumours have it that the brothers took to writing letters to the editors of various American newspapers under the guise of children, requesting that Santa appear in their cities with his reindeer. This unorthodox media campaign helped to establish the mythology and awareness of reindeer throughout North American society.

Their careers faced an untimely end with a devastating fire in 1934 that destroyed 30,000 negatives and 50,000 prints. This exhibit was only possible because several thousand negatives were saved from the blaze by the Lomens and numerous helpful friends and neighbours who carted out heavy box after heavy box before their studio building was absolutely destroyed.

Arctic Life opened Tuesday and is set to run until June 16.

The Musée Héritage Museum is located in St. Albert Place at 5 St. Anne St. For more information, call 780-459-1528 or visit


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