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James Robert Andersen Collection

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James Robert Andersen Collection

James Robert Andersen (1919-2011) requires no introduction to the people of Labrador. Affectionately known as Uncle Jim, this life-long resident of Makkovik wore many hats throughout his life: a fisherman, wharfinger, shopkeeper, boarding house proprietor, postmaster, sawmill operator, delivery contractor, musician, storyteller, and audiovisual documentarian. In the spring of 2011 Uncle Jim’s family donated a vast amount of papers, photographs, films and other documents to the Archives and Special Collections of the Queen Elizabeth II Library of the Memorial University of Newfoundland.

An Introduction to the Archival Project
These materials were digitized between 2011 and 2013 with the generous support of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University, the Makkovimiut Trust and the Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development. The collection has not been been described. This work is being co-ordinated at the community level and will be uploaded to the Digital Archives Initiative as it becomes available.

James Robert Andersen was born 21 April 1919 at Makkovik, Nunatsiavut, Newfoundland and Labrador and died at Happy Valley-Goose Bay 23 March 2011, the youngest of four children to John Albert and Susan Mary Mitchell. Widely known as Uncle Jim, Mr. Andersen was a life-long resident of Makkovik where he worked variously as a fisherman, trapper, wharfinger, shopkeeper, boarding house proprietor, postmaster, sawmill operator, delivery contractor, and Air Labrador agent. Many of these businesses were jointly operated with his wife Susie Andersen (1914-2000). Outside of Makkovik, Uncle Jim is generally known for his prolific photographic work, commemorated in the 2008 retrospective at The Rooms James Andersen: Over 50 Years of Taking Pictures and his receipt of the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Councils’ Rogers Arts Achievement Award in 2009. He is the grandson of Torsten Kverna Andersen, a Norwegian immigrant and Hudson’s Bay Company employee who, in 1860, was the first settler at what is presently Makkovik.

Along with his siblings Bridget, Edward and Inga, Uncle Jim was likely born at home by a mid-wife, his aunt Bertha Andersen. He attended school at Makkovik until grade eight when he quit to join his father fishing in the family rooms at Dunn’s Island. Much like his son, the elder Andersen had a flair for entrepreneurship. Though the fishery served as his primary occupation, the elder Andersen operated one of the first sawmills as well as one of the first wind-generated sources of electrical power on the North Coast of Labrador. It appears he was also, for a time, the owner of the schooner The Primrose. For Uncle Jim, however, fishing and trapping did not hold the promise of a lifelong career and like many residents from the southern communities of present-day Nunatsiavut he sought employment at the expanding air force base on the southern shore of Lake Melville. In the winters of 1941 and 1942, Uncle Jim walked from Makkovik to Goose Bay to seek out seasonal work. The additional income was necessary to offset what were proving to be significant fluctuations in natural resource harvesting. The events of 1940 would provide him with added incentive to diversify his means of income; that year he would establish two significant relationships. The first was with his wife, Susan Mary Eliza Flowers (widely known as Aunt Susie). The second was with his camera, introduced to him by the Reverend George Harp.

From all appearances, Uncle Jim’s experiences at Goose Bay seem to have given greater focus to those entrepreneurial skills he had begun to cultivate with his father. Upon his return to Makkovik, Uncle Jim resumed seasonal work as a salmon fisherman, assumed the operations of his father’s sawmill, and inherited the position of postmaster from his Aunt Bertha, a position that would see him delivering mail by way of dog team and komatik under the auspices of Overland Limited. He also worked at the Labrador Services Division government store for a time. As he set about establishing his business interests, Uncle Jim supplemented his education with a range of distance courses. At the same time, his wife, Aunt Susie, began one of her many careers among which was a mid-wife. She would deliver 50 babies throughout her life.

Central as well to the lives of both Andersens was music. For Uncle Jim this interest led him to learn a variety of instruments: accordion, piano, cello, fiddle, mandolin, guitar and trumpet. It also, importantly led him to become a recorder of music, first on reel-to-reel magnetic tape and eventually on audiocassette. For Aunt Susie, her interest was as an enthusiast. The pair would come to call their residence The Springdale Music Center, so marked by a sign that hung above their front door. The Andersen residence would serve as an important site for musical rehearsal and production during the course of their lives. It would function as the site for the Moravian Church’s choir practice; Uncle Jim would serve as choirmaster for some 50 years alongside his sister Inga as church organist. The Andersen residence would also serve as the site of more informal musical gatherings, ranging from large parties to intimate performances until Uncle Jim’s death.

Yet as critical as music was to Uncle Jim’s life, its practice seems to have made little sense without the presence of some manner of camera. The Reverend Harp had provided Uncle Jim with a means to realize and give structure to a documentary imperative. Between the receipt of the Reverend’s gift in 1940 to the purchase of his very own Jiffy Kodak in 1951 until his passing in 2011, Uncle Jim has been the author of tens of thousands of photographs (it is unlikely that an exact number can be determined) and thousands of feet of moving images. Not only was every musical event at the Springdale Music Center a suitable subject, so was seemingly every event in Makkovik that Uncle Jim had attended. His camera would become his defining instrument.

As his business interests expanded, so too did his renown as a documentarian. The years following Confederation would see the rapid expansion of infrastructure of Northern Labrador; Uncle Jim would come to both anticipate and facilitate this development. Aside from its role as the Springdale Music Center, the Andersen residence served as one of the prominent boarding houses in Makkovik and the site of a convenience store, made legendary as the only business to possess a beer license in the community for a number of years. Uncle Jim also operated Jim’s Deliveries, a contracting service that, in addition to working with large-scale development initiatives, also accepted contracts for snow clearing and garbage removal from the community of Makkovik. He also worked as the Air Labrador agent, a position that placed him in direct proximity to any and all visitors to the community. These interests, along with Uncle Jim’s gregarious personality, worked to promote the distinction of the Andersen residence and name in Makkovik and beyond, one predicated upon the capture and circulation of images as much as hospitality.

Ultimately, it was the connections Uncle Jim had cultivated throughout the course of his working life that brought his work as photographic documentarian to the public eye. Hans Blohm, a guest at Andersen’s boarding house served as the catalyst for the Labrador Inuit Association/Torngâsok Cultural Centre’s 2002 purchase of a number of still and moving image items that served as the basis for the 2008 exhibition James Andersen: Over 50 Years of Taking Pictures at The Rooms. The purchase and subsequent exhibition established his reputation as a documentarian. He would serve as the subject of a number of print articles as well as the subject of a 2006 episode of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Land & Sea, receiving greater prominence both within the province and across the Canadian North. The Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council recognized his achievements as an artist in 2009 bestowing him the Rogers Arts Achievement Award.

Though his eulogizers place particular emphasis on the camera as his instrument of choice, it is perhaps more appropriate to conceive of Uncle Jim’s art as less rooted in the practice of photography and more accurately rooted in the practice of documentary. Granting that his output of still and moving images far exceeds any other media he generated, the object of his production is almost uniformly, a concern for tradition. As a musician, storyteller, photographer, and even as a collector of media, his practice reveals a concern for custom and continuity.

Compiled with information generously provided by Ms. Joan Andersen and Ms. Annie Evans.


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