Photography exhibit offers glimpse into a bygone world

Among the half-built houses and ramshackle shacks that dotted Whitehorse's landscape in the 1940s and 1950s, Rolf Hougen was there, documenting daily life.

Among the half-built houses and ramshackle shacks that dotted Whitehorse’s landscape in the 1940s and 1950s, Rolf Hougen was there, documenting daily life.

Whether it was at a community event, a wedding, a ball game or a parade, Hougen always had a camera in hand to preserve a piece of local history.

For over 25 years, the well-known businessman has donated thousands of pictures and hundreds of feet of film to the Yukon Archives Society.

Almost 100 pictures from the latest donation are featured in the exhibition A Yukon Snapshot: Photos and Home Movies 1946-1978, which opened on Nov. 7.

It’s Hougen’s second exhibition hosted by the Friends of the Yukon Archives Society. The first one, Life in Whitehorse: 1946-1969, opened in 2010 and its pictures are on permanent display on the second floor of the Hougen Centre.

The photographs give a vivid glimpse of a bygone era.

You can almost smell the oiled floors, touch the new vinyl records and taste the 25-cent french fries when browsing the pictures.

Whitehorse was in full expansion at the time. The building of the Alaska Highway in the early 1940s brought more than 30,000 U.S. Army personnel to the Yukon.

Airstrips and roads were built to transport war supplies to Alaska.

By 1951, the Yukon’s population had grown to just over 9,000.

Hougen remembers looking down at the city from the top of Two Mile Hill when he was in his 20s.

“Things have changed tremendously over time,” he said.

“A lot of the photographs I took were from up there because it was such a good vantage point. That’s where the airport terminal was located, and there was a road up the side of the cliff you could take to the airport.

“In those days I remember seeing hundreds of barrack buildings, the military were there, construction buildings, a whole lot of activity was going on.”

Now 86 years old, Hougen has a great memory of the pictures he took almost 70 years ago.

He remembers taking a picture of a First Nation woman who was on her way to Taylor and Drury, a department store at the time.

“She had several dogs with her and they were weighed down with groceries,” he said, recounting the moment as if it happened yesterday.

“She’d been in from Marsh Lake, where she lived. She had a rifle over her shoulder.”

Another favourite shot is of Vincent Massey, the first Canadian-born governor general, when he visited Whitehorse in 1956.

Hougen snapped a shot of Massey speaking to Hootalinqua Sam in front of the MacBride Museum.

“Massey had a top hat and overcoat, and Sam was dressed just like you’d expect a First Nations person to be dressed at the time,” he said, highlighting the contrast in clothing. Sam is pictured hauling a large sack, wearing knee-high socks and a cap.

Several of Hougen’s old cameras are on display at the exhibition, including a Rolleiflex model from 1944, “the best camera in the world at the time.”

That was the year Hougen’s parents emigrated from Norway to Canada and settled in Whitehorse.

He moved on to the Speed Graphic a few years later.

It was big, heavy and expensive, but it was the camera of choice for press photographers until the early 1960s.

Hougen and his wife Marg had a darkroom in their home, where photographs were developed, enlarged and printed.

Hougen said he always had an interest in preserving Yukon history.

There is a photograph of a bride and groom being showered in rice in front of the Old Log Church.

Another shows a man walking in front of a burning building, with flames pouring out of its windows.

Hougen’s home movies, mostly shot in the 1960s and 1970s, bring viewers around the territory, Canada and even to China and Japan.

There were times when Hougen didn’t have his camera and missed opportunities, he said.

He wishes he had taken a shot of the interior of John Sewell’s old grocery store.

“I have an exterior shot of it but none from the inside,” he said.

“It was one of those old stores with the traditional interior. You’d go up to the counter and pick out what you wanted.”

A Yukon Snapshot runs at Arts Underground until Feb. 21, 2015.

Contact Myles Dolphin at