Thursday, September 13, 2007

"Picturing the People" New Exhibition at the Autry National Center in LA

I'm in the new exhibition, "Picturing the People" at the Autry National Center in LA that opened last week. The exhibition runs from September 7th to January 27th, and I hope you're able to stop by and take a look at the work. You've always wanted to go to LA to see the movie stars, right? Stop by the place that is dedicated to the American West. How can it be wrong if it was started by America's favorite cowboy?

What makes this exhibition a bit ironic and fun is that it is a collaborative effort by both the Autry Center and a group of Indigenous Photographers who wanted to transform how the viewer thinks of the American West, Cowboys and Indians. In this sense, it is full of mythical perceptions of both theirs and ours, so as a result, it is more of a collective statement about American Identity, not just the Indigenous people of America. It includes a multitude of stories about the American West from the point of view of the people who have been there for over 10,000 years, plus photographs by what I call old farts from the pioneer clan. Just kidding. Maybe not. It's the old point of view of White photographers photographing Native Americans. It's kind of a goofy cobwebby point of view that has all the usual stale stereotpyical points of view, but does include some good stuff too.

See the above September 17th post for a clearer idea of the visual dynamic and photographic history that I'm referring to.

I myself was inspired to make a piece titled "Tonto's TV Script Revision" in which the script includes a closing scene where Tonto is seen gently chiding the lone ranger for wearing baby blue tights, much in the style of a cowboy superman, instead of pants, and says with a chuckle that maybe the authoritative black leather thing is a bit much. The lone ranger just smiles sheepishly and blushes as the scene fades to black… (an excerpt from my chapter in a book to be published next year titled Visual Currencies).

Tonto and the lone ranger have switched roles in my version and Tonto is the hero with the lone ranger as his trusty companion. All of a sudden the lone ranger can't understand most of Tonto's new big words, but is content to just follow his lead, because he knows in his heart that Tonto will always be a doer of good deeds, defending the helpless and bringing the bad guys to justice.

In this TV Scene, we have Tonto bringing the criminal Richard Pratt to justice. Richard Pratt had the bright idea to start the Indian Boarding Schools back in the 1870's and his philosophy was to "kill the Indian and save the man," with his new Carlisle Indian School. His school was a model of brutality and abuse towards innocent Native children that many other Indian Boarding Schools followed. He was a bad guy.

Anyway, in my scene, I have Tonto roughly washing Pratt's face in a jail with an audience of cowboy deputies. Pratt was finally brought to justice for his crimes against humanity as the lone ranger looks on in astonishment. I have a number of portraits of Native children on the wall, bearing witness as they say. Edward Curtis is also under arrest for his crime of trying to make the idea of genocide pretty with his Vanishing Race crap. The whole thing is a bit silly, but what the heck. It's what a sassy Indian kid would think up while watching cowboy movies with his friends. They're all hootin' and hollerin' at the bad guys, which is what this is all about when you get right down to it. Tonto quietly brings the bad guys to jail in my stories, which is why it's cool to have my work in an institution dedicated to figuring out what the American West is all about.

Oh yeah, and what's with wearing your mom's hat all the time Curtis? That's ok, you just stand out a bit is all. Does this have anything to do with you not making any photos in our Chilkat country of the Northern Tlingit where even our revered Aunties are fierce warriors?

I'm in stellar company with other Indigenous Photographers such as Hulleah Tsihnahjinnie, who helped make the exhibition a reality, Will Wilson who teaches Photography at the University of Arizona at Tucson, Dugan Aguilar, Pena Bonita, Teo Chambi, Rosalie Favell, Shan Goshorn, Zig Jackson, Erica Lord, the Great Lee Marmon, the Stellar Shelley Niro, and so on. There are many others, whom came into this exhibition from another titled "Our People, Our Land, Our Images" that Hulleah sponsored with Veronica Passalacqua at the C.N. Gorman Museum at UC Davis in 2006. It was in conjunction with a Conference of Indigenous Photographers.

Here's one'a my pieces that the Autry Center has been using for their ads and stuff. It is from the "Raven Asks Pontiac" series and is titled, Y'eil, which is the Tlingit word for Raven (the trickster). What'cha y'all waitin' fer partners? Mosey on over to the corral and take a peek (thanks for the snapshot Veronica!).


Jay River said...


I like your photos.

A note on ES Curtis; People love to look at his pictures and presume he was working as some sort of fake Edward R. Murrow or something. First, and foremost, he was a portrait artist. JP Morgan hatched the project requirements that he was to perform.

He was getting paid, and so were the Indians... say no more.

He created art, and included 20 volumes of observations.

The works have been dissected for the art, and few have read the text. Too many are busy interpreting the art, ascribing it various sorts of intentions. The text shows his intent.

Larry McNeil in Larryland said...

Lets not kid ourselves about the overt message Curtis sends viewers with his "Vanishing Race" photographs. We can't be naive about what we see.

This weekend I was talking to a Mr. Andor from Norway who was an ardent fan of Curtis. He couldn't believe that there was any kind of message beyond the superficial beauty of the photographs. I told him, OK Mr. Andor, pretend that Curtis went to Norway in the early 20th century and photographed your people for 20 years and made volumes of beautifully rendered photographs of them. Lets also say that Curtis viewed Norwegians as being a vanishing race, because they would no longer live like they did in the early 20th century. Lets also say that the people of the world who saw those volumes believed that there were no Norwegians left because of the beauty of the photographs.

A dim light went on in his eyes as he started to realize what the Curtis photographs mean to many Indigenous people of America. Although many Indigenous tribes were in fact genocidially wiped out by Americans, many of us did survive. Millions.

To this day I still get people blankly staring at me saying, "I thought you were all dead. I had no idea real indians still exist." I could go on, but I think you get the message. Read the upcoming book, Visual Currencies:

This text will help educate you on the political and cultural significance of your comment.

Thank you for commenting, I do appreciate it.


Jay River said...

Have you ever read any of the Curtis text from the 20 volumes? There is a ton of it, but most people have never seen it.

As far as "race" goes... I doubt that there are many pure blood Indians in this day. He may have been referring to the inevitable mixing of blood lines. One's race can vanish as procreation continues and population grows. Hence, "vanishing race". Remember race and culture are not the same thing.

So....there are other ways to interpret the ES Curtis history.

I understand the logic you see in your interpretation, I just think you need to read some of the many pages he wrote. This can help guide you as you interpret art.

I have read some of your words, and they assist me in trying to draw meaning from your art. Curtis had only 253 sets of his books published. Most are still locked in university libraries today, they deserve a reading. You are publishing to the world on the web. I dare say that your words precede your art to some degree. You live in the information age.....what a difference 100 years makes.

Larry McNeil in Larryland said...

Yes, I've read a great deal of Curtis' text. Unfortunately some of it is a bit racist and definitely condescending. Other scholars have pointed this out too, not just me. An interesting read may be some of the books by Mick Gidley from the UK, one of Curtis' great contemporary admirers. Are you willing to learn about what Curtis' photographs are about, to read not only Curtis' words, but a diverse cross section of what scholars have written? Especially scholars who admire his photographs, yet bring forth all of the scholarship, warts and all?

Your comment about pure bloods is way off target too, which is common for people who don't really know the nuances about the Indigenous people of the Americas. All of this misinformation about pure bloods originally came from the US military as a tactic to eliminate indigenous people from the official ranks of the surviving people. The military set up a blood quantum system for the survivors as a tactic to thin their numbers even more. If you want to have a discourse about Curtis, you have to be acutely aware of all of the other issues that enter the fray, otherwise you will have distorted and untrue information informing your conclusions. This means that in order to speak intelligently about his work, you need to know the facts about the politics and culture of the Indigenous people too, not just what Curtis wrote in the volumes.

Almost every single native nation had a matrilineal society that had strict rules of marriage. One could not marry from within one's own clan, so they had to go outside for intermarriage.

This meant that by definition, the concept of pure bloods was taboo. So as you can clearly see, there were never any pure bloods in the first place. If there were, they were inbred and shunned by their own people. All this stuff about pure bloods comes directly from white people.

I hope that if you can understand only one thing about some of my art it is that it is about freeing Indigenous people from the narrow minded drivel that the Curtis work ultimately represents to us. You never did comment about the scenario regarding the Norwegian. What do you think about what I told him and how he finally understood my points?

Jay River said...


I've read all the Gidley books.

I read your analogy with the Norwegian, and it's an understandable description of your points.. easy to understand. And... I understand the analogy, I understand the entire point you project.

My problem is that I don't entirely believe that thesis. The thesis that he was essentially a racist creating beautiful art that duped the world. I can see the interpretation, but don't believe its really correct.

I think this concept has taken on a type of 21st century political correctness that we love to love. I don't believe that he was much more than a portrait artist who snagged a 30 year long gig.

Was he a racist? Doubtful.. but terms he used like "primitive tribes" ignite the thinking that he was.

I say this because the man who chafed against him in his day was named Franz Boas and had written a book called "The mind of primitive man". In it he defined modern anthropology, and in fact dispelled the notion of "primitive". But... he used the term "primitive man" in a book title.. should I think he was a racist because of this??

My point is that there was an international debate going on about the origins of man, that stretched from a few centuries before. I can't fault Curtis for growing up in this era. He uses some terms that sound politically incorrect, but I simply don't see a racist there.

People love to rant over Curtis staging. ALL portrait photographer do this. Many news photos are staged.... have you ever heard of a photo-op? Plus, he was paying the Indians, and Curtis himself was payed as well. So he was creating compositions that articulated the image of an Indian from 50 years earlier.

Do we know if George Catlin's paintings are accurate? No... its just art.

The most suspect thing about Curtis is that he worked for JP Morgan, who bankrolled the expansion of the whites into the west.

I could go on... its all an interesting debate.

Thanks for your invitation to comment with an open mind, I like your spirit of debate.