An exhibition at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum places the pictorialist’s work, viewed by many as problematic, in a more informed light.
By the early 20th century, the vast majority of Native Americans were living on reservations, their original ways of life changed forever. It was during this era of upheaval that photographer Royal W. (Roland) Reed Jr. set out to document what he thought was a “vanishing race.” He wasn’t the only one to mistakenly think that: The same motivation propelled Edward S. Curtis to create his life-consuming opus, The North American Indian.
Indigenous peoples have long taken issue with the notion of the vanishing race and, by extension, the work of Curtis and Reed. The pictorialist movement, of which Curtis and Reed were a part, had good intentions. Pictorialists hoped that in attempting to re-create scenes from an imagined past, they were making both art and a scientific record of bygone Indian ways. Rather than recording what was actually happening to Native Americans in the face of genocide and forced relocation, pictorialists crafted idyllic scenes of beautiful Indigenous people hunting, gathering, riding, and surveying the thousands of miles that were once their homeland, from the Eastern Woodlands to the Western plains and mountains.
The exhibition (Dis)Information: American Indians Through the Lens of Roland Reed, on view at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, puts the pictorialist impulse in a more informed context. It reveals the artful manipulation of photographic compositions for greater effect — from the practice of rehearsing subjects to creating staged sets using ethnographically inaccurate baskets and pottery, Native headgear and jewelry, traditional weapons, and even canoes — and yet provides a wonderful visual experience.
Born in 1864 in Omro, Wisconsin, Reed began shooting portraits of Native Americans in 1907. Made with a heavy large-format 11-by-14-inch camera and printed in sepia tone, the 36 images in the exhibition demonstrate how far he roamed to follow his photographic passion. According to Reed, he met a band of Menominee on an old trail that passed by his family’s log cabin near the Fox River. After moving to Montana in 1890 and landing a job on the Great Northern Railway, Reed started sketching the Piegan and Blackfeet. He apprenticed to and then partnered with Civil War veteran and photographer Daniel Dutro; the pair furnished photographs of Native Americans to the news department of the Great Northern Railway for several years.
Reed created the majority of his Indigenous work between 1907 and 1913, his subjects ranging from the Ojibwe and Anishinaabe in Minnesota to the Blackfeet and Cheyenne in Montana and Southern Canada to the Hopi and Navajo in the Southwest. While his images only number in the hundreds, not thousands like Curtis’, “His photographs are stunning, real works of art,” says Leah Davis Witherow, the curator of history at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.
A cornerstone of the (Dis)Information exhibition is the regal Amskapi Pikuni Blackfeet chief Medicine Owl, one of Reed’s favorite subjects, sitting astride his beautiful paint horse. There’s also Lazy Boy, a 1915 image depicting Medicine Owl in full headdress; and 1913’s Alone With the Past, an ode to the Diné and their Southwest homeland.
Reed, like Curtis, hoped to publish a definitive photographic record of the American Indian. Despite the beauty of his photographs, his body of work remains problematic to the extent that it presents an imagined past rather than capturing a realistic present — the mistaken mythology of the vanishing race. “Today, there are still visitors who come to the museum and ask, ‘Where are the American Indians in Colorado?’ And we want the public to know they are still here,” Davis Witherow says.
For important historical and cultural perspective, the museum reached out to Paiute photographer and activist Gregg Deal, who, Davis Witherow says, “provided a layered perspective to challenge and push the viewers about what we can know about Indigenous peoples based on the photographs.”
The survey of Reed’s work is important for a number of reasons: “This exhibition challenges the assumptions of viewers and allows the Indigenous perspective to be central to the narrative of Western history. It provides a more modern perspective on this Indigenous work and lets Indigenous people tell the world about these photographs and what is important to them.”
(Dis)Information: American Indians Through the Lens of Roland Reed is on view through March 27, 2021, at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado. cspm.org
Photography: Courtesy Kramer Gallery
From our February/March 2020 issue.