Arts Desk

American Indian Photography, Reimagined Through Portraits and Irony

FeatherThe National Museum of the American Indian exhibit, “Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson,” poses a compelling question: Can a photographic technology serve ideological motives?

Not only do McNeil and Wilson, both Native American artists, believe that’s the case; they’ve staked their careers on it.

Platinum printing was invented in the 1870s, offering photographers more stable and permanent prints than the tried-and-true silver-based process. The late 1800s were also a period of intense conflict in Indian country. Because some of the most prominent photographic documentary efforts involving Native Americans, including that of Edward S. Curtis, used platinum printing, some view the platinum print as deeply intertwined with the fate of the American Indian.

“The popularity of the platinum print coincided with the peak of the physical and cultural devastation of American Indian nations,” the exhibit argues. “Exploiting the aesthetic qualities of the platinum print, art photographers presented a romantic vision of Native peoples even as they struggled against disease, poverty, assimilationist policies, and dispossession of tribal lands.”

The exhibit may be overselling the connection between an art technique and historical wrongs—after all, platinumIndian portrait prints were widely used by artists having nothing to do with Indians. But as an structuring principle, it’s enabled McNeil and Wilson to produce some compelling art in an undoubtedly impressive medium.

In 1977, for instance, McNeil ironically photographed a Indian leaning against a run-down car by a store with a sign touting its commerce with “REAL INDIANS.” For the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the western hemisphere, McNeil produced a “feather” series, including a stunning, ultra-close-up of a lone feather (top). He also reimagined the old Lone Ranger and Tonto television series through a clever series of fake stills that upended stereotypes.

Wilson, meanwhile, more directly challenges Curtis-style portrayals, collaborating with contemporary Native Americans and non-Natives to make formal portraits. He uses a quirky method that involves making tintypes first, then digitally scanning them, and finally making a platinum print of the resulting image.

Several of his images seem somewhat self-serving—namely, the ones featuring museum curators and art collectors. But others stand out for their impressive visual contrasts to the century-old depictions.

One image, of Indian artist Nicholas Galanin, is far blurrier than the old documentary photographs, looking almost like a watercolor portrayal (above). And another image, of Native American artist Zig Jackson, features a second, partially hidden figure behind Jackson, suggesting a hallucinatory state. Even if you don't entirely buy the demonization of a technological method, both artists do execute a worthwhile reappropriation of an old method in service of new ideas.

Through Jan. 15, 2015, at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, 4th St & Independence Ave SW, Washington, D.C.


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