In the past, practical needs required people to huddle in the wilderness; during the hunt, around campfires while roasting venison and musing on their kill and the next day’s prospects, or while boiling coffee at dawn and discussing the oncoming weather, predators and guns, before herding masses of livestock across an open range. This tradition of gathering in the landscape continues, but in modern times our association with that experience is mitigated by technology, resulting in the evolution of a more leisurely aspect of wilderness camaraderie. Talk is still part of the essential experience, but is less likely about the imposing hinterland and survival, and more likely to be casual chat about politics, sports, stock markets and sex; around the crackling fire-grills of trailer parks in summer or in winter, to the hiss of propane heat and light around a small hole cut into the icy floor of a hut perched on some frozen crust of open water.

The pastime of ice fishing owes its genesis to a need for sustenance. It is handed over from people like the Inuit, whose lives depended on the scant resources offered by an inhospitable landscape. Voyageurs during our country’s early history, fished through the ice to survive an unyielding and hostile wilderness. It was lonely, patient work, and a time to meditate on the hope of future riches and comforts while engaging in slow-talk. In a few short generations, this mode of survival for transient hunters has become an annual sport, creating a (predominantly male) culture focused upon the nostalgic reenactment of the hunt and the bonds of that fraternity. 

Toronto photographer Richard Johnson has aimed his attention upon this culture of ersatz hinterland voyageurs and the unique architecture they create. In his typology* style survey, Johnson presents us with an array of variations; an exploration that is as much a record of his journey to the vast, wintry wilderness of sporting leisure as it is a striking document of the temporary, idiosyncratic structures that appear upon its pale horizon. 

In the examination of subjects as typologies[1] a rigorous process of collection is the key element in a photographer’s work. In league with early landscape photographers of the 19th century (Hill & Adamson, William Notman etc.) Johnson brings his audience close to unfamiliar territory. His eye muses over the uniqueness of each structure and its relationship to the landscape. Like specimens laid-out, or pinned up to illustrate the iterations of a particular species, we as viewers are invited to consider a catalogue of structures that reveal the evolution of a form. We see variations of an architecture specifically created to provide basic shelter. As with its distant cousins the native Teepee and Igloo, the Ice Fishing Hut has its own essential purpose. It must be weather resistant and transportable, giving basic shelter and access to the ground beneath it. As such its form dictates a unique structural condition.

Johnson’s visual essay reveals the subject of a creative process. Through his photographs we are invited to compare both functional and aesthetic similarities, and differences, as manifested in variations of colour, design, emblematic detail, accessory, relative proximity to one another and the implied sub-cultural significance to their creators. A striking feature of Johnson’s observations - considered as objects with aesthetic merit - the conventions used in the making of these curious buildings seem universal in conception but highly individual in execution; a form of renegade architecture that verges on the development of a vernacular folk art tradition.


[1] Typology is the study of types, and a photographic typology is a suite of images or related forms, shot in a consistent, repetitive manner; to be fully understood, the images must be viewed as a complete series. Kristine McKenna, "Photo Visions," Los Angeles Times, 29 December 1991

April 04, 2016 by Richard Johnson
Tags: Ice Huts

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