Problematic and misleading portrayals of Indigenous peoples have long marred US history. In this blog, we look at three artists included in Ansel Adams in Our Time—Adam Clark Vroman, Ansel Adams, and Will Wilson—to understand how Indigenous people have been historically photographed and how this depiction has changed over time.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the landscape and non-white populations of the “American Southwest” were thought to be “isolated” and “primitive” in relation to a white US citizenry. Unironically, the then-US territories of Arizona and New Mexico were deemed un-American through processes of racialization used to sustain a white nationalistic vision.[i] The introduction of the railroad, specifically in the territory of New Mexico in 1878, prompted a significant shift in the territory’s landscape.[ii] Droves of white Americans, many of whom were artists, began traveling to the southwest in search of escape, exploration, and transformation. The territory quickly developed into a type of “American Orient” where colonialist expansion and fascination could be fulfilled.[iii]
Adam Clark Vroman, bookstore owner and collector turned amateur photographer, traveled to the southwest eight times between 1895–1904. As a businessman, Vroman realized the widespread appeal of Indigenous peoples and their influence on tourism. Thus, Vroman seized the economic opportunity to commodify his subjects, as seen in The American Indian Souvenir Playing Cards (fig. 1a and 1b), and sell them at Harvey Girl Indian detour stations.
Vroman’s Nine of Spades (An Isleta Water Carrier) (c.1894) features an Isleta woman posed with a large water vessel on her head. Becoming as much of an object as the vessel, Vroman reduces the woman to a tradable and collectible item. Neatly packaged and small-scale, the playing-card format renders the subjects to be non-threatening products for white Americans to purchase for purposes of nostalgia and recognition of their dominant social and cultural authority. These playing cards essentially communicate Vroman’s perceptions of Indigenous peoples as exotic curiosities that he masterfully documented and curated for profit.
Influenced by Vroman, Ansel Adams came to New Mexico in the late 1920s. Also drawn to the allure of Indigenous peoples, Adams felt ambivalent about his encounters. Although the photographer’s first photographs in the state focused on Indigenous peoples, even making images of public dances, his turn to landscape was an attempt to correct his unsolicited artistic exploitation.
In a 1937 photograph, The Enchanted Mesa, near Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico, Adams produces a mystical and dramatic construction of space. Through shadow, light, texture, and direct photographic practice, Adams amplifies the notion that this is preserved, untainted, and uninhibited American territory.
By selling images of unidentified Indigenous peoples for profit, and by displaying images of uninhabited landscapes that are, in fact, populated by non-white groups, Vroman and Adams each contributed to the idea of an American nationalism grounded in a mastery over “uncivilized” land and people. While admiring these photographs it is important to remember the individuals they omit, the role of the photographer in crafting misleading narratives, and the ways in which these Indigenous peoples and cultures are not frozen in these old photographs, but continue to thrive today.
Taking the camera into his own hands, contemporary artist Will Wilson (Diné) inverts the photographic tradition established by artists like Adams and Vroman. Wilson is very clear about using the work of Edward S. Curtis as his primary reference for this series, but Adam Clark Vroman and Ansel Adams are also tethered to this legacy of white artists using photography to promote a sensationalized myth of Indigenous people as part of a “vanishing race.” Utilizing early wet-collodion photography as a reference to this history, Wilson’s series exposes this myth as fiction, and actively works to empower the sitters instead. Wilson works in tandem with the subjects to reclaim representation by letting them make their own decisions about how their likeness is captured, rather than dictating how to dress or pose from behind the camera.
In his ongoing series, aptly called the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX), the artist states, “I want to ensure that the subjects of my photographs are participating in the re-inscription of their customs and values in a way that will lead to a more equal distribution of power and influence in the cultural conversation.”[iv]
Through these exchanges, Wilson’s sitters are simply asked to present themselves in a way that suits who they are as individuals. After an image is created, Wilson scans the final product so he can digitally reproduce it later and gifts the one-of-a-kind tintype to the sitter. Wilson’s titles formally name each sitter and provide additional biographical information, such as who they are, where they live, and how they culturally identify (see, figs. 4a, 4b, and 5).[v]
Ansel Adams in Our Time is open now through January 3, 2021. Get your tickets here.
Written by David Saiz, 2020 Havner Curatorial Intern, M.A. Student, University of New Mexico
This article has been edited for length and clarity.
[i] During peace-treaty meetings to resolve the Mexican-American war, diplomats were discussing how much Mexican territory would become part of the U.S., to which Congressman John C. Calhoun remarked, “I know further, sir, that we have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race.” See, “Conquest of Mexico: John C. Calhoun, 1848,” Teaching American History, n.d., 2006–2020, https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/conquest-of-mexico/ (accessed Jul. 23, 2020).
[ii] Victoria E. Dye, All Aboard for Santa Fe: Railway Promotion of the Southwest, 1890s to 1930s (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005): 1.; “Santa Fe tracks reached the top of Raton Pass and entered New Mexico on November 30, 1878, and in February 1879 crews extended the tracks to Otero [County]. This impromptu camp, near the old Clifton House stage station (just south of present-day Raton), served as the temporary railhead while construction crews pushed toward Las Vegas.” See, “Santa Fe: National Historic Trail CO, KS, MO, NM, OK,” National Park Service, Jul. 30, 2018, https://www.nps.gov/safe/learn/historyculture/map-timeline-5.htm.
[iii] Stephanie Lewthwaite, “Modernity, Mestizaje, and Hispano Art: Patrocinio Barela,” Journal of the Southwest 52, no. 1 (2010): 42.
[iv] “About Me: Will Wilson.” Will Wilson, n.d., https://willwilson.photoshelter.com/about.
[v] “Michelle Cook: About,” Michelle Cook, Indigenous Human Rights Advocate and Lawyer, n.d. https://www.michellecooklaw.com/about-me.