Halftime Leisure

Indelible: Permanence and Photography

September 5, 2014

We use photography to make a moment concrete, perfectly capture a scene, or preserve the fleeting burnt oranges and deep royal purples of a setting sunset. We are on the perpetual quest for the ideal view, setting, angle, and light, so that what we see can be transformed into a tangible, handheld snapshot. However, what does it mean to photograph a vanishing subject? This implies an inherent contradiction. Can that which we consider permanent be used to save a disappearing race? Through the use of platinum photography artists Larry McNeil and Will Wilson, in their new exhibit Indelible located in the Museum of the American Indian, explore the role and power of photography in relation to the representation and survival of American Indians. Characterized by bright white and glossy black colors, platinum photography became popular in the 1870’s during a time of great cultural and physical devastation for American Indians. Despite the growth of poverty, disease, and loss of tribal lands, photographers created romantic visions of the tribes, hiding and ignoring these real and harmful challenges to the Indian people. Using platinum photography, McNeil and Wilson implement this history into their work today, in attempts to renew the positive power of photography and redefine the struggles and identities of the American Indians. Entering the small, darkly lighted room lined with large, black and white photographs, I became transfixed on an illustration of a gas mask, its dark, deep-set, empty eyeholes boring into me, while it looks onto a power plant that dominates the photo. The bright, white power plant set against the dark backdrop at first glance seems to be the main focal point of the piece. My eyes, nevertheless, couldn’t keep from wandering back to the eerie mask, made out of spruce root, a material used in traditional basket making. The stark contrast between the plant and the mask represent the struggle between culture and technology, more specifically environmental destruction. It is easy to assume that technological advances bring us life. McNeil suggests the contrary in this piece, suggesting that Indians seek renewal and protection through their tribes and culture, permanent forces in their lives. The other contributor to this exhibit, Will Wilson, uses photography to explore the not only the combination of imagery, technology and power, but also to address the historical issue of the exploitation of American Indians. Wilson seeks to convey the true nature and complexity of his subjects in order to resist stereotyping and simple categorization, as exemplified in his portrait of Indian Nakotah LaRance. LaRance, squatting on a stool, appears ready to leap up, yet his facial expression remains direct and transfixed on the viewer, creating a combination of movement and restlessness. His white shirt against his dark body intensifies his gaze. He wears a traditional dancing hoop across his chest and carries headphones and a graphic novel, demonstrating the past and present. Although a photograph is quiet, LaRance tells us his own tale of cultural transformation, rather than letting the photographer create his own narrative. Through large scale, brightly colored white and black photos, McNeil and Wilson reflect the permanence of the American Indians as well as the power of tradition in the face of technological and cultural change. Unlike the photographers of the late 1800’s, these two men use photos to expose the truth rather than simplify the subject and ignore its challenges. They seek to highlight complex identities, emphasize the importance of telling one’s own story, and raise questions about how we can use technology as a good, powerful tool for change. Photo: Smithsonian Natural Museum of the American Indian

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