A Saltspring Island couple captures the beauty of the Inside Passage in a book that's a work of art itself

Sandra McCulloch
Times Colonist – Victoria, British Columbia
June 17, 2012

A magnificent section of the Inside Passage lies within the province of British Columbia but is largely inaccessible for many of its residents.

Those who take B.C. Ferries or cruise ships up the coast may glimpse wildlife along the shore, spot waterfalls cascading down cliff faces or see whales sharing the waterway.

Coastal temperate rainforest covers less than 0.1 per cent of the globe, and more than a third of that is located in the Inside Passage.

The area is cherished by the First Nations, who have deep roots in coastal settlements. Others who have left their marks are European explorers and ambitious southerners hoping to score big in the Yukon and Alaskan gold rush.

Photographers Pat and Rosemarie Keough of Saltspring Island set out to capture the magic of the Inside Passage in their art book Labyrinth Sublime, which takes the reader from Seattle, Washington, to Glacier Bay, Alaska.

"Our desire is the body of work will be enjoyed as a visual symphony, where the crescendos of colour and majesty are at times followed by quiet intimacy," wrote the Keoughs in the introduction.

Despite serious health challenges, the Keoughs have created a book that captures the beauty in the majestic and minute features of the area.

The $5,000 cover price will put the volume out of reach for all but serious collectors. Today, the Times Colonist brings you the story of this adventurous couple and the making of Labyrinth Sublime.

Stretching from Seattle to beyond Glacier Bay in Alaska, the Inside Passage covers an astonishing 70,000 kilometres of shoreline - from lush rainforests and pristine beaches to settlements ranging from bustling metropolises to abandoned First Nations villages.

The marine life is equally varied, from humpback whales plying their way in the deep channels to sunfish and anemones basking in tidal pools.


         Photo by Adrian Lam

When Pat and Rosemarie Keough of Saltspring Island decided to produce a photography book worthy of the Inside Passage, they knew it had to be big. Labyrinth Sublime is big all right, yet its print run is small - just 250 numbered copies.

Each copy costs $5,000, contains 340 photographs and weighs 17 kilograms - it's big enough to benefit from its own wooden stand, which is available at an additional cost.

Despite the hefty price during a global economic slump, several dozen buyers from around the world have lined up to purchase the tome, many of them won over by the Keoughs' previous art book, Antarctica, unveiled by Prince Charles in 2002 at St. James Palace. The 950 copies were bound and available for sale by 2006.

Pat and Rosemarie, now 67 and 52 respectively, have been taking photographs since they met on a whitewater canoeing expedition on the South Nahanni River in the sub-Arctic in 1984.

They moved to Saltspring three years later, and today live in a mountaintop home made of wood and rock, overlooking Galiano, Saturna and the smaller Gulf Islands. They seem quite serious when they suggest that one day, they'll do a book of photos taken from their bedroom.

A few pictures taken from home made it into Labyrinth Sublime, including one with two bald eagles perched in a treetop and another with a ghostly mist draping the islands.

Many of the others have been taken by the Keoughs over 25 years of coastal exploration.

The idea was not to document, scene by scene, the Inside Passage and all its flora and fauna. Each image and the entire book is meant to be a work of art, they say.

"If someone sculpts in granite, that's their art - this is what we choose to do," said Rosemarie during a recent interview at home.

"The normal books you'd find at Munro's and other bookstores, we've 'been there, done that.' "

They've had other books published commercially and choose now to oversee every step of the process themselves, from image enhancement on the computer to book binding, as part of their business, Nahanni Productions Inc.

"In the standard publishing industry, when you produce those things, there's always a need to compromise," Pat said. "When you're a photographer, you want the image to be the best you can get and you want the reproduction to be the best it can be.

"A lot of people who buy our books think of them as art."

Much time and effort is spent taking the raw image of a slide or digital photograph and making it suitable for publication. The goal is to end up with "something that reflects our feeling when we were in that place," Rosemarie said.

That place may be a golden carpet of big-leaf maple leaves on the Gulf Islands or a vast glacier in Alaska.

The book is assembled so that facing pages often have a connection: A photo of two Saltspring Island men clad in yellow slickers and red floater jackets stands opposite a picture of a yellow-leafed alder and red maple.

There are Pelagic cormorants on weathered posts of a wharf opposite a freighter southbound in Puget Sound, pushing a huge bow wave in wind-whipped seas.

There's a Douglas fir silhouetted against the yellow sky of sunrise and a harvest moon rising above the blue hills of Orcas Island.

The people in the photos are as captivating as the scenery: Bob Boucher of the Central Coast looks at home aboard his tug, the Monarch II, which is crammed with prawn traps, faded plastic tarps, ropes big and small and rusted cans of rust paint.

A Tlingit woman stands proudly wearing a button blanket over a dress handed down from her grandmother.

Jessel Boulton looks up from his work carving cedar corner posts for the big house at Hartley Bay.

Locals who know the wild areas best often assisted the Keoughs in capturing images of marine and terrestrial wildlife. An aboriginal escort from Hartley Bay took the couple to see the elusive Kermode "spirit" bear on Princess Royal and Gribbell islands.

Black bears with a recessive gene that gives them white fur, Kermode bears live in a small area of the Central Coast.

Long lenses allowed the Keoughs to take photos from a safe distance: "The bears are hunting salmon; they're not interested in us," Pat said. "They're comfortably fishing and we're comfortably watching them."

The couple got unusually close to humpback whales and orcas because they were travelling with mariners who knew the whales would show up at a certain place - they just had to wait.

They travelled up the coast on a sailboat owned by family friend Jim Allan, who "has a sixth sense for the orca," said Rosemarie.

"He will just stop the sailboat in a certain spot and will say, 'There will be whales here.' And you know what? In an hour, they're coming up to you."

They accompanied a researcher who studies humpback whales in hope of getting good shots, said Pat. After a couple of hours of waiting, about 50 humpback whales showed up "all blowing and logging around us," he said. (Logging is when whales lie on the water's surface.)

"This one went right down and came right up off the bow. It's so special because they're curious about us and it's a real feeling about communion."

The Keoughs spent a lot of time waiting for whales and, a crucial element, the right light.

Changing light "is a difficult thing," said Pat. "You can end up getting 30 shots of the same thing, each of which is quite a pretty picture ..."

Rosemarie interjects: "But one is magic because of the light. We can choose the elements and compose the picture, but we have no control over the light."

A case in point is the Keoughs' attempt at shooting an abandoned fish cannery at Namu. Pat said the day turned out to be a "yuck day with flat light." But at the last moment, things changed.

"At sunset that day, just at that last moment before the sun went down, it broke through and shone with that yellow, warm light," Pat said.

"If we hadn't been standing on that boardwalk, waiting for that precise moment, we wouldn't have got that shot. The light hit those buildings and changed it into something very magical."

The Inside Passage encompasses one of the world's grand fjordlands, he said.

"Most Canadians don't know they're sitting on top of one of the most majestic fjordlands on all of the planet. It's not just the thousands of feet of rock rising out of the ocean, it's the ghost towns, the old totem poles, the grizzly bears and the black bears," he said.

"There is so much that makes up this coast of ours. It's such a rich mixture of culture, the remnants of native culture. I don't think a lot of us who live here appreciate what a truly wondrous place this is."

Many people take their own backyards for granted, said Rosemarie. "The draw for us is the Inside Passage exists. You may not go there, but you know it's there. There's this wilderness right on our doorstep."

The Keoughs decided to focus on the Inside Passage after Rosemarie was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in November 2005. She underwent surgery, 18 months of chemotherapy and daily radiation for six weeks. Active treatment concluded last month with her last tamoxifen pill.

Rosemarie had been spending a lot of time at the B.C. Cancer Agency in Victoria. She was also marketing Antarctica, which proved to be a tough slog once the economy took a downturn.

"I didn't want to stay in the office because I was getting so little back," she said. "I thought, 'This is the time to be inspired,' and taking pictures, creating something of beauty, is truly spiritually inspiring for me."

So the Keoughs set sail for the Inside Passage, staying close enough to home for Rosemarie to continue her cancer treatment.

Pat has health challenges of his own, with multiple sclerosis causing some weakness on his right side.

Today, Rosemarie is in good health and has regrown a full head of hair.

She is busy marketing both Antarctica and Labyrinth Sublime. On a recent trip to New York, she sold the very first copy of Labyrinth Sublime for $60,000. That collector also bought the Keoughs' book on Antarctica.

The couple has a following of loyal collectors who are waiting to receive their copies of the latest book - each book is made with care and production takes time. Some of these collectors have suffered financial hardship, but have told the Keoughs they still want the book, which has already won an international award.

The Independent Publishers Book Awards, representing 2,000 publishers worldwide, put the tome first in the "Best Book Arts Craftsmanship" category. The Keoughs' earlier effort, Antarctica, also won this honour.

Now they're looking forward to their next huge project, which will focus on the people, wildlife and landscapes of the Arctic. They've already taken photos in Russia and Greenland, and this summer, they'll travel through the Northwest Passage.

The publication date depends on the economic situation, but likely won't be until 2018 or 2019. Other projects underway include a photographic essay on the Mojave Desert in California and another on the Mediterranean.

The Keoughs insist they're not getting rich off these high-priced art books.

"From a dollar-and-cent value, we would have been better to do anything other than this, because it's not a moneymaking scheme," said Pat.

"It's something that costs a lot to do. At the end of the day, there's satisfaction and we know we've created something unusual on a world scale."

Return to Reviews