Mar 142012
 
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Native American Portraits: Points of Inquiry
Historical Photographs Reveal Changing Views of Native Peoples

Unidentified woman and child, Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, ca 1912, by Jesse Nusbaum. Glass negative. Palace of the Governors Photo Archives 61712.

Unidentified woman and child, Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, ca 1912, by Jesse Nusbaum. Glass negative. Palace of the Governors Photo Archives 61712.

Santa Fe (March 12, 2012) – Since the Civil War, photographers have tried to capture the lives of Native American peoples, resulting in some of the most beautiful and elegant portraits in the collections of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives. More than 50 of these images will be on display from May 18 to November 4, 2012, in Native American Portraits: Points of Inquiry, a salon-style exhibition in the History Museum’s Mezzanine Gallery.

Along with a selection of contemporary photographs, the images document the changing perceptions of Native peoples over a span of 150 years.

In the words of Mescalero Apache writer and photographer Pena Bonita:  “When trying to make sense of clichés, chaos and formal training, it seems necessary to break down fixed boundaries and explore the relationship between the real world and the point of inquiry as seen through the lens.” 

Focused most extensively on the post-Civil War period through 1935, Native American Portraits showcases exquisite examples by some of the most prominent photographers of their times. Included in Native American Portraits are the rigid and formal ethnographic portraits of visiting Native dignitaries to Washington, D.C., following the Civil War by photographers such as Charles M. Bell and Zeno Schindler; the overly romanticized and staged photos of Edward S. Curtis and Karl Moon; and the elegant but casual at-home photographs of New Mexico’s Pueblo Indians by T. Harmon Parkhurst and others.

Curated by Palace of the Governors Photo Archivist Daniel Kosharek, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture Photo Archivist Diane Bird, and Andrew Smith of the Andrew Smith Gallery in Santa Fe, the exhibit divides the historical photos into three time periods representing various “points of inquiry” into American Indian-ness.

The earliest photos, from the late 1860s to about 1880, show the government’s systematic attempts to create a visual catalog of the tribes. The goal was to document a wishful theory of the “vanishing” Indian while preserving material of their culture for scientific information.  In the next group, from 1880-1900, commercial photography and photo essays by professional and amateur photographers promoted tourism and the development of Western lands. In the final period, 1900-1935, photographers indulge in the painterly style of the Pictorial Movement, with a soft focus, richly textured papers, and dramatically dark prints—all designed to show off the supposed Native characteristics of strength, courage, wisdom, and beauty.

A contemporary element of the exhibit will showcase Native American photographers Larry McNeil, Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, and Zig Jackson, who use photography to explore and re-claim historical Native American portraiture. They raise issues of colonialism, subjugation, spirit loss, blasphemy, identity, and pseudo-cultural appropriation as well as questions of veracity, historical fact and interpretation. They are harshly critical of the romantic/fashion/tourism stereotypes and the methodology of making those photographs while celebrating the spirit of the individuals photographed.

The New Mexico History Museum is the newest addition to a campus that includes the Palace of the Governors, the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States; Fray Angélico Chávez History Library; Palace of the Governors Photo Archives; the Press at the Palace of the Governors; and the Native American Artisans Program. Located at 113 Lincoln Ave., in Santa Fe, NM, it is a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

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