Life at the northern edge of the map

With his eye trained on his little world, James Bradshaw brings the Yukon to life
Life at the northern edge of the map
Kennedy Bradshaw/Keno City Mining Museum

James Kennedy Bradshaw was born in the English fishing village of Polperro, Cornwall, around the turn of the last century. When he died in 1981 in Mayo, a Yukon mining hub 400 km north of Whitehorse, he was penniless, without family, destined for oblivion. Except that Bradshaw, who left school at 13 and worked for 30 years as a mechanic and electrician along the Yukon’s fabled Silver Trail, had left behind a lifetime of photographs whose haunting beauty catapults him beyond the realm of hobbyist.

In the 60 or so prints that went on show in Whitehorse late last year (part of a charity auction to benefit the Ted Harrison Artist Retreat Society), Dawson City, Elsa, Keno City and Mayo emerge with all the richness of Manawaka, Lake Wobegon or Winesburg, the fictional outposts that Margaret Laurence, Garrison Keillor and Sherwood Anderson created to anchor their human dramas. Here it’s all real. With Bradshaw’s documentary eye trained on his subarctic world from behind a prized Leica 35 mm, loaded with colour-saturated Kodachrome slide film, the Yukon becomes his perfect muse. “What’s interesting about his photographs is the depth and quality of his description of everyday life,” says Vancouver-based photo artist Roy Arden, who has written about Bradshaw’s work, comparing it to the work of Eugene Atget, a so-called “amateur” photographer who documented fin-de-siècle Paris. “Bradshaw’s got a narrative, almost novelistic approach to his subjects.”

The shots reward the expectations of southerners, then tweak them. A man in muddy coveralls dons a spotless fedora. Miners gathered in a beer hall in conspiratorial bunches cast tough but wary glances at the camera. “He was always taking pictures,” says Laura Crowther, Bradshaw’s neighbour in the town of Elsa in the late 1960s. “When the guys from the shop had their Christmas party, he was taking pictures. You know how guys get together and argue over work, those kinds of scenes? Ken was always laughing, as though he’d caught somebody in the act, pointing a finger in somebody’s face.” The shots are just as often tender. A woman in a floral-patterened dress leans into the telephone as though into a man’s shoulder, rare Arctic oranges on the table behind her. Or the two children amid tar-paper shacks hanging from a fire-engine-red tricycle.

It’s said Bradshaw himself lost his wife and two children in the Blitz, and that he first came to Canada after jumping ship in Halifax. He arrived in Dawson in the late 1940s, picking up work with United Keno Hill Mines Ltd. In small, cozy homes among fellow migrants—Germans, Hungarians, Slovaks, mostly—he lived with his second wife, Ida, who was also English and who invited neighbours to elaborate tea rituals that, despite the rustic surroundings, she ensured included good china and biscuits. In one self-portrait, Bradshaw sits at the kitchen table, pen in hand, her tea tins and biscuits beside him.

Ida died of cancer in 1966. When Ken died 15 years later, the contents of the little shack he had inhabited for years went to his old pal, Geordie Dobson, another Brit who owned the Keno City Hotel. In the mid-1990s, Robin Armour, then the Yukon territory’s official photographer, stopped into town on assignment; the Keno City Hotel was the only place you could find a bed. “Quite often you were the only person there,” Armour says. “I used to sit at the bar and drink scotch with Geordie and shoot pool and he would entertain me with yarns about his haunted hotel.”

On this occasion, Geordie handed Armour several metal slide boxes filled with images. “He said, ‘Here, you’ll enjoy these. I can’t think of anybody who’d appreciate them more,’ ” he recalls. Armour did not open the boxes for months. When he finally did, he could not believe what he’d found. “I almost fell over when I started getting an idea of the scope and the quality of his work,” says Armour, who curated a cross-Canada tour of the images that are now part of the permanent collection at the Keno City Mining Museum.