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Yukon, a pictorial love story

Almost 70 years ago, James Quong gave his future wife Diamond an ultimatum. "It's me and the Yukon, or nothing.

Almost 70 years ago, James Quong gave his future wife Diamond an ultimatum.

“It’s me and the Yukon, or nothing.”

He wrote this in one of their early love letters, during the Second World War, while he was building the territory’s roads.

In the letters, he also frequently alluded to his other passion: photography.

One long, excited passage describes an officer who brought a new camera to camp and the day Quong spent playing around with it.

Quong’s passion for both the Yukon and photography are currently on display at the Arts Underground.

During the 40 years Quong spent in the territory, he built 134 bridges and took tens of thousands of photos.

A few years ago, the family donated more than 7,000 black-and-white photos to the Yukon Archives.

But those 7,000 weren’t Quong’s complete works.

“It was just what we could find at the time,” said his son Ken, who has been slowly making his way through boxes of love letters and photos since his parents passed away.

“We still seem to find the odd stash in their house. We just found an apple box full that we didn’t realize we had.”

There are 30 boxes of 15,000 slides to go through still.

And not a single one of them is likely to be out of focus or washed out.

“From both an esthetic and technical point of view they’re beautiful. They’re flawless,” said Ken. “He was meticulous to every detail in the photographic process.”

The pictures on display certainly don’t seem to be the work of an amateur, and not what you might expect from a lifelong engineer.

The photos of bridges aren’t meditations on rivets or the technical beauties that can only be seen with a bridge builder’s eye. Instead the bridges are showcased almost as landscape art, with the bridges linking the rivers and leaves of the foreground to the pristine forests and mountains behind.

It’s not all just bridges and landscapes.

James had a keen eye for the people that make up the Yukon and captured everything from official ceremonies to grocery store lineups.

He also dabbled in portraiture, borrowing heavily from the style of famed portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh.

James sent a few of his photos into Readers Digest, but never considered the work anything more than a hobby.

He studied engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, but couldn’t finish because of the Second World War.

That was when he was seconded by the US Army and sent north to begin his road- and bridge-building career.

He worked for the army until 1964, helping design bridges on the Skagway Road as well as the Alaska Highway.

He then moved to the Department of Public Works, where he remained until his retirement in 1981.

And he was just as passionate about his bridges and his photography.

On family trips, the Quongs would have to stop at each and every bridge they came across so that James could crawl around underneath, checking them out.

Ken is quite the amateur photographer himself - with a self-diagnosed “addiction” to bird photography.

The other passion that Ken inherited is his desire to own the latest technology.

Also on display in the Arts Underground are Quong’s beautiful collection of cameras, which were all top of the line when he bought them. They are all still in working condition.

The first show at the Arts Underground began last week and will continue until July 30.

A show in the Dawson City Museum will showcase the town as James saw it in the 1960s, just before restoration work began.

The show is a sort of tribute to the old town, which has since disappeared, with some buildings being torn down and others given significant face lifts.

That show will run from May 22 to August 11.

May 27 to August 27, the Yukon Transportation Museum will be showcasing Quong’s love for engineering in a bridges and boats exhibition.

And there will also be a show at the Old Log Church Museum.

James Quong, who was a member of the Anglican church, loved photographing the log church and other chapels throughout the territory.

The show features photos of confirmations, Sunday school classes, visiting bishops and the consecration of the new cathedral in Whitehorse in 1960.

The first exhibit at the Hougen Heritage Gallery in the Arts Underground has been a long time coming.

More than 10 years ago, his friend Rolf Hougen asked James to put on a photography exhibit.

The perfectionist that he was, James declined, saying his work wasn’t good enough.

Ken didn’t think that his father would be angry about having his work on display now.

“I think he’d be a little embarrassed, because he could see all the little flaws in each picture that the rest of us can’t see,” said Ken.

“But I think he’d be secretly happy.”

Contact Chris Oke at