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Photographs of starving Inuit people, taken during an Arctic famine in 1950, are among the highlights of an exhibition that is currently being shown at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Richard Harrington, a Canadian commercial photographer and photojournalist, made six trips to the Arctic between 1948 and 1953, but it was his 1950 visit, when he took dramatic photos of people starving due to a famine, that became famous. Caribou herds did not follow their normal migration patterns, and the people living out on the land began to starve as a result. Harrington took some photos of people who died shortly afterwards.

He visited one destitute home on February 8, 1950, and recorded the experience in his journal: “Came upon the tiniest igloo yet. Outside lay a single, mangy dog, motionless, starving … Inside, a small woman in clumsy clothes, large hood, with baby. She sat in darkness, without heat. She speaks to me. I believe she said they were starving. We left some tea, matches, kerosene, biscuits. And went on.”

A few days later he took a picture of another starving Inuit mother dressed in shabby clothes and clearly quite malnourished, with her nose and lips pressed up to her little child. The image became justly famous. When he returned south to Churchill, he raised an alarm about the famine, which helped focus the attention of Canadians on the situation.

The fact that widespread starvation stalked their land as recently as the 1950s is not well understood by many Canadians. Frank Tester, a scholar of Arctic studies at the University of British Columbia, said about Canadians, “we have an image of this country that excises this period altogether.”

Tester is quite impressed with Harrington’s Inuit photos and the exhibition at the WAG. “It’s a window into people who made their own meaning, who survived in a climate that was incredibly demanding,” he said. “The pictures portray a people with fundamental strength.”

Harrington’s photos have only been shown in museums a few times. His widow approached the WAG and showed her late husband’s work to curators Darlene Wight and Mary Reid. They were overwhelmed and became co-curators of the exhibition. “I was just absolutely blown away, not only by the quality of the photography, but also by the subject matter as well,” Ms. Reid said.

The exhibit includes photos by Harrington in addition to the ones taken during his trip in the winter of 1950, pictures that portray a time when the Inuit still subsisted effectively on the land. According to Wight, “These are very, very proud, striking images of a people that were not devastated. It’s really important for people to see (Inuit) pre-community life and how it was very arduous, but also how the people were very proud and had a good life.”

Harrington’s work was praised by the well-known photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and was included in the 1955 show curated by Edward Steichen, Family of Man. The show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery opened on November 28 and will remain open until March 14, 2010, according to the WAG website. The website includes a few of Harrington’s images, including the famous photo of the Inuit woman with her lips touching those of her baby. It also announces two different talks at the museum by the curators, in January and February. Some sculptures by Inuit carver Charlie Sivuarapik, from the collections of the museum, are also included in the exhibition.