A new book shows the Sioux people as photographed by Frank Bennett Fiske at the dawn of the 20th century.
Frank Bennett Fiske is best known for his early 20th-century images of Sioux people going about everyday life as well as sitting for studio portraits. Born in 1883 and raised among the Sioux of the Standing Rock agency on reservation lands bordering the Missouri River, he often photographed the neighbors and friends of his upbringing in and around Fort Yates, North Dakota.
His father was a soldier who had tried his hand at ranching but, defeated by drought, had taken work with the Army as a civilian wagon master and moved his family to Fort Yates. There Fiske was schooled at both the military post and the Indian boarding school. Summers spent on the water working as a cabin boy on riverboats led to an ambition to become a steamboat pilot. But after apprenticing with S.T. Fansler at the post photo studio and taking over for Fansler in 1900 at age 16, Fiske remained on the frontier, documenting the changing face — and faces — of Fort Yates and Standing Rock.
A new book, The Standing Rock Portraits: Sioux Photographed by Frank Bennett Fiske, 1900 – 1915 (TerraLannoo, 2018), offers dramatic glimpses of the Native Americans the North Dakotan photographed. “Seeing this book come to life was the culmination of a long-held desire to produce and design a high-quality art monograph of Fiske’s work, which it most assuredly deserves,” says the book’s curator and designer, Murray Lemley, himself a photographer with North Dakota roots. We talked with Lemley about Fiske’s achievement.
Cowboys & Indians: What drew you to the Standing Rock Portraits project? How were you introduced to these photographs?
Murray Lemley: My very good friend Todd Strand was the photo archivist for the State Historical Society of North Dakota from the mid-1970s through the ’90s, and he introduced me to the Fiske archive, which the museum had acquired in 1952. Both of us are North Dakota natives, and both were struck by the technical quality of the images — glass-plate negatives, many of them 6.5 by 8.5 inches — of immaculate clarity and evincing the power and profound presence of the subjects.
Many of Fiske’s sitters had spent most of their lives as free Natives on the Plains, and some had participated in many of the major battles of the Indian Wars, including the Battle of the Little Bighorn — One Bull and Rain-in-the-Face, to name the two most famous examples — before being confined and resettled on the reservations.
What attracted me was the high quality of the images, their composition as photographs, and the compelling presence and projection of the people portrayed.
C&I: Where were the negatives, and what kind of shape were they in?
Lemley: After Fiske’s death in 1952 — he died the same year as Edward S. Curtis — the State Historical Society of North Dakota acquired his life’s work of negatives with the generous support of Harold Schafer, a successful North Dakota businessman and supporter of historical endeavors in the state. In the early 1980s, I produced a limited-edition portfolio of 30 images from the archive. There are more than 3,000 images in the collection. Though some of the negatives had suffered damage from poor archival storage before the acquisition, once in the museum’s care, they have been well-preserved. Many of the originals, however, display marks and scratches from that period before acquisition.
C&I: How are Fiske’s images similar to or different from Edward S. Curtis’?
Lemley: Both of them are known for their portraits of Native Americans, of course. Similarities would primarily be subject matter, with some slight imitation of the style of Curtis after he photographed at Standing Rock between 1903 and 1905. Fiske focused on his neighbors in Fort Yates that he knew and lived among. Curtis’ aim was broader, a more ambitious endeavor, richly financed by the likes of J.P. Morgan and the Roosevelts, that set out to document the “vanishing race” of all North American Indians. Edward Curtis emulated the current vogue of pictorialism for his style, represented by soft focus, narrow depth of field, and an overall “romantic” impression, while Fiske’s style was more straightforwardly documentary in style, sharp focus and usually devoid of that romantic overtone. Fiske did, however, emulate Curtis’ style in a small number of portraits after seeing examples of Curtis’ work, likely 1903 – 05, an example of which is Mrs. Chasing Bear.
C&I: What kind of equipment and process did Fiske use?
Lemley: Fiske inherited much of the equipment left by Fansler and added additional cameras, though all of them were rather technologically dated in their sophistication. Fiske continued to produce images much like Fansler on glass-plate negatives of various sizes until roughly 1915 or 1916, long after most photographers had switched to acetate film, which provided easier exposure and portability of cameras. Luckily, this old method produced stunning clarity and sharpness, but it did mean that Fiske photograhed primarily indoors in his studio. Shooting was both cumbersome and unpredictable, though he did make a few beautiful images outdoors (see The Lance and Powwow Dancers). Once Fiske did make the switch to flexible film, the quality and dynamism of the photographs declined.
C&I: What are some of your personal favorite images, and why do they speak to you as a photographer?
Lemley: I have always been drawn to The Lance, being one of the few outdoor images that is truly impressive. One Bull, Sharp Horn Bull, and Kicks Iron have an iconic quality, a mesmerizing presence with dynamic engagement from the faces of the sitters. And there is a narrative suggestion embodied in the photograph of the Catholic priests and the Indians in the group photo that hints at the incongruity of their existence in the early years of reservation life. And the two poignant portraits of young girls — Dunn Girl and Young Girl — elicit a feeling of empathy and compassion, and show the rather sophisticated, somewhat modern way that Fiske framed those two images.
C&I: What was the editing process like for the book?
Lemley: Since I have known these images for three decades, I have had sufficient time to sort out the best of the best. That being said, when the Dutch publisher pushed for a book with more pages and images, I enlisted the help of Sharon Silengo, photo archivist at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, to dig deeper to see if we could unearth some secret gems. Fortunately, in the last two years they have done just that: They uncovered several previously unnoticed portraits of women — the Standing Soldier sisters, for example — and a lovely outdoor shot of two fancy dancers at a powwow.
A great deal of time was spent arriving at the final sequence to be used in the book and on the decision to keep each spread open and airy with one portrait for each two-page spread.
It gives me great satisfaction to have found a partnership with Terra Publishing and terrific cooperation from the state historical society to make this book a reality.
C&I: What existed in the way of notes to help you in the process?
Lemley: Fiske’s method wasn’t very comprehensive when it came to written notes and context for the images. Names and dates were about it, and sometimes not even that much information. Additional information was provided by cultural anthropologists at the museum, such as notes on the articles they are wearing or holding while photographed, as well as historical notes when found.
C&I: Any plans for exhibitions of the work?
Lemley: Now that the book has been published, there are active plans for exhibitions both in the U.S. and in Europe, especially Amsterdam and Berlin. Nothing final yet, but I suspect there will be two or three in the second half of 2019. There is also initial interest in France and Switzerland. I am sure there will be additional possibilities once people see the book and the elegance of Fiske’s work.
C&I: What especially would you like viewers to see in and understand about this work?
Lemley: Edward Curtis has the overwhelming and inevitable presence in the field of Native American photography. His legacy is the one most people know and recognize. There were, however, other frontier photographers, many of whom produced compelling photographs of Native Americans but who have flown under the radar — photographers such O.S. Goff, L.A. Huffman, D.F. Barry, to name a few, and Frank Bennett Fiske. Their work adds to the richness of the record and history of the remarkable Native Americans so beautifully portrayed. It is those Native Americans whose beauty and strength and presence enabled the photographers to capture an important transitional period in the history of the Plains Indians.
In Rod Slemmons’ essay for the book, he puts it like this: “In a sense, Fiske falls somewhere between Curtis and the documentarians. His work is neither self-consciously sentimental and pretty, nor is it coldly analytical. ... The photographs in the Fiske portfolios are important windows, historically and artistically, for they show a proud people during a period of difficult and often painful transition. Through the glass of Frank Fiske’s negatives lies an abundance of information and understanding.”
The Standing Rock Portraits: Sioux Photographed by Frank Bennett Fiske, 1900 – 1915 is available via Amazon or at lannoopublishers.com.
From the February/March 2019 issue.