Few art forms are as self-consciously nostalgic as the platinum photograph. The Instagram filter of its day, platinum printing was used at the end of the 19th century to convey a stylized, distant past. The velvety blacks and glowing whites could make an image’s textures feel soft and enclosed, liquid, no longer entirely real.
Some of the most famous images of American Indians were made using this process. If you picture a stern or mournful Native American in a war bonnet or a fringed dress, you are probably thinking of a platinum photo like those taken by Edward S. Curtis. These portraits depicted American Indians as solemn exotic—Tolkienesque bearers of ancient wisdom. Curtis’s work offers more variety than this caricature would suggest; his portraits are often arresting, and his subjects show a wide range of expressions, not just wistfulness and woe. But he came to represent a school of portraiture in which Native Americans are already vanishing; warriors and medicine men drift off into the Happy Hunting Ground without any aggression on the part of white folk. (Curtis doctored several of his photographs to remove imported technology like parasols and clocks.)
“Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson,” an exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian (on display through January 15, 2015), confronts and satirizes the clichés of “white people photographing Indians.” McNeil, who is Tlingit/Nisgaá, was born in 1955 and raised in Alaska, with both white and Native family members. He currently teaches photography at Boise State University. Wilson (Diné/Bilagaana) is about a decade younger, raised in the Navajo Nation; he’s an artist-in-residence at the School for Advanced Research. The very first photo embodies the show’s argument: In McNeil’s “Real Indians” (1977), a slender, long-haired, mustached man in jeans and a denim jacket leans against a rustbucket car, parked under a faded sign proclaiming a weatherbeaten building a “MOST INTERESTING SPOT… where REAL INDIANS trade.” The sign promised passersby an exotic adventure; the real guy, wry and self-possessed, isn’t promising you, the viewer, a damn thing.
Most of McNeil’s work in “Indelible” is taken from three series: 1992’s “Feather,” 2013’s “The Home Planet, Global Climate Change,” and 2006’s “Tonto and Lone Ranger.” Although they all use platinum prints, these series are strikingly different—and not entirely successful. “Feather” is the best. “1492” shows a feather above a human skull, both the same size, against a black background haunted by drifting smoke; in “1992,” a feather the size of a pine tree stands alone, challenging, in an open field. These manipulations of size combine with the high-contrast use of black and white to evoke the work of the surrealists: Man Ray’s solarizations, or René Magritte’s bilboquets and paper cutouts which replace the human form. The photos are crisp and silvery. The feathers seem immense, arctic.
On a theoretical level the feather is a remnant, something that fluttered to earth from the hide of a large bird or from an item of clothing, something that survived and grew far past its original, intelligible size. The images are powerful on a purely aesthetic level, as well; the close-ups show all the taut, curved strands that make up the feather. “Elders” shows the giant feather dissolving into darkness at the bottom of the frame, as its strands part like a theater curtain, disclosing more darkness.
The climate-change series has a collage aesthetic, each photo offering a layered, hieroglyphic array of symbols: the gas mask, the raven, the camera, the key, the skull. There’s a science-fiction flavor to these dystopia scenes with their old-timey blurred edges, and a dream logic to the way the symbols are deployed: the gas mask is partly made from a traditional Native basket.
The Tonto and Lone Ranger series was for me the least successful element of “Indelible.” Television stills are repurposed into heavy-handed collages in which Edward Curtis is jailed or McNeil himself stands in front of a cartoon about cultural representations of Native Americans. These are targets that have been hit more elegantly and even more angrily by others. “Real Indians” is a political photograph in the way that life is political. The “Tonto and the Lone Ranger” photographs are political in the way that an op-ed is political.
The show’s other artist, Will Wilson, perfectly combines politics and aesthetics. His “Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX)” series might sound too high-concept, one of those art projects where you might as well read the captions instead of actually seeing the artwork. Wilson made platinum prints of many Native Americans (and some white folk), intentionally mimicking certain elements of the 19th-century “exotic” style but rejecting others. The museum’s description of his work notes that he “creates portraits of ‘today’s Indians’ on metal plates, then digitizes the plates, makes large-scale digital negatives from the scanned images, and uses historic printing processes in a wet darkroom—calling attention to the manufactured nature of all photographic images.”
His subjects gaze directly at the camera rather than maintain the sad, middle-distance gaze of the Vanishing Indian. They mostly wear everyday clothes—no war bonnets—and some even hold small copies of those 19th-century portraits, so you’re sure to get the contrast. The portraits’ titles give the subjects’ tribal memberships and job descriptions; most of them work in the arts, including museum curation and direction. Wilson gives each the tintype of his or her portrait, in exchange for the right to use the image. This careful, even strenuous performance of equal and consensual exchange couldn’t be a more pointed critique of the white photographer who profits off of native people’s exoticized images.
All of that makes up the theoretical apparatus of the series, and it’s important; but Wilson’s series also has a lyricism, a strange mix of the haunting and the earthly. These faces are seen in blunt close-up. They often look sun-baked; they’re weathered by life, freckled or wrinkled. The expressions are often stern. But the platinum process allows Wilson to drench these images in rippling light and shadow.
These subjects maintain their individuality and aren’t forced to embody somebody else’s idea of the Indian. Nakotah LaRance, a champion hoop dancer, wears one hoop around his body and hooks his thumb into it—but he’s also reading a manga and has big white headphones slung around his neck. Raven Knight—a dancer, her face glowing against a satiny black background—does stand in a careful pose and in quasi-traditional dress. But it’s not her own tradition. She’s a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, and her draped clothing is inspired by South African styles. Wilson’s term for his own kind of art is “trans-customary”: a fusion of the traditional and the postmodern. Most of his subjects display a recognizable “trans-customary” sensibility, cosmopolitan and self-aware, rooted in a specific tradition but seeking parallels for their experiences in others’ traditions.These subjects aren’t exoticized, but they are estranged, seen through bubbling and shifting streaks of silver light.
A plump man in glasses turns out to be Joe D. Horse Capture, the Associate Curator of Native American Art for the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It’s hard to think of a more prosaic title, and the man himself has a dad-like placidity and solidity. He’s almost aggressively normal. But the edges of the portrait are black and rough, and the background is streaked with beautiful, disruptive silver bubbles. In this soft wash of gauzy light, even a matter-of-fact head shot takes on an air of mystery, as if we’re seeing Horse Capture from underwater.
Nicholas Galenin is off-center in his frame; his gaze is direct but those silver bubbles hold him somewhat at a distance. He might be behind a rain-streaked window. The same quirks of platinum printing show up as tiny fireworks in the background of the portrait of hoop dancer Nimkii Osawamick, whose eyes are covered as he holds out his hoops. There are showers of light, as in the portrait of photographer Zig Jackson—a slightly tilted head, considering expression, holding up his camera in a portrait flecked with white feathers of light. There’s the sunny photo of Cara Romero, the light beating down on her wide-brimmed hat, her soft gaze and slightly tilted head against a canvas-like background; and the stark photo of Cory Van Zytveld, with its black frame echoed by the severe parting of her black hair and the tarry flecks of freckles across her face. The direct gazes make some of the photos feel intimate, others challenging. The underwater lighting gives a sense of longing, and a sense that a great deal of reality has still escaped the camera. These are painterly and emotionally charged photographs, and the precision of their historical references and political positioning only adds to the emotional depth.
Wilson’s self-portrait is one of the most direct challenges to the Vanishing Indian idea. He’s seated and looking off to the right—not directly confronting the camera—with one of those stern, strong-nosed expressions which are so familiar from the 19th-century prints. His hair is back in a simple ponytail; he wears a button-up shirt and a heavy necklace. He’s performing the noble pose, but in a context designed to undercut it. This self-portrait might be an argument that satire is the most noble profession remaining for the American Indian.
“Indelible” closes with a few small examples of the 19th– and early 20th-century work by white photographers to which McNeil and Wilson are responding. In all three portraits the subjects are dressed up, wearing only clothing associated with Native Americans—there’s no 19th-century equivalent of the headphones or the jean jacket. Two of the subjects gaze away from the camera, which softens the photos and prevents the subjects from confronting the audience.
The third subject, the one who stares down the camera, is Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, better known now as Chief Joseph. In this portrait by Edward Curtis we see that platinum printing can have a startling immediacy and intensity. The directness of his gaze and the sharpness of the print make it seem as if there’s no barrier between the subject and the audience—no barrier of time, but also no barrier of the white photographer’s dream of Chief Joseph. Wilson’s photographs, and in a less direct way McNeil’s, are an argument that this “immediacy” was constructed, and that the barrier of the photographer always remains.
The actual old photographs, because they’re not concerned with appearing old or performing old-fashionedness, have far fewer marks of the platinum process. They’re not streaky or feathery or rippling with silver light. Nonetheless it’s easy to see why platinum printing was so striking and appealing to McNeil and Wilson: The old photographs do have softer, glowing tones of light and darkness. They have a distinctive look that can seem like tenderness—or it can seem like nostalgia, tenderness’s narcissistic cousin.