Charles Carpenter’s Native American subjects stare at us across gulfs of time and culture. In rich sepia tones imbued with the cachet of age, they inhabit a world not our own.
Carpenter, who was the chief photographer for the Field Museum from 1899 to 1947, traveled in 1904 to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis to see Indians. A section of the fair that commemorated–a year late–the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase was set aside for displays of and by the original inhabitants of North America. The resulting colony turned out to be rather extensive–featuring natives not just of the original Louisiana Purchase tract but also from the southwest, California, British Columbia, and the Arctic.
In the heat of the Saint Louis summer, the natives built their traditional shelters, wore traditional clothes, practiced traditional crafts, and performed traditional dances and ceremonies. And they posed for Charles Carpenter. During the four months he spent there, he exposed over 3,000 glass-plate negatives–weighing almost a pound apiece–and sent them to Chicago to be developed. Most were never published or exhibited. Now the Field Museum offers them in “Charles Carpenter: Native American Portraits.”
Carpenter used diffused natural light to illuminate his subjects, most of whom pose–singly, in pairs, or in small groups–facing the camera, confronting the photographer and the viewer. The large size of the glass-plate negatives–six-and-a-half by eight-and-a-half inches–lends an exceptional clarity of detail. And the light is soft, showing to advantage the details of faces–young and smooth or old and lined–and clothing–highly decorated at times, or worn and richly textured.
It was, obviously, a time of transition for Native Americans–though for most “transition” may have been rather too mild a word. The cultural change going on around the turn of the century is hinted at in a photo of three men, the Oglala Sioux Flying Hawk and the Nez Perce John and David Williams. The mix of native and English names matches their eclectic outfits: buttoned shirts worn with feather headdresses, moccasins, and beaded necklaces. Even Geronimo, who as Apache chief represented virtually the epitome of defiance against white settlers and the U.S. Cavalry, is shown here wearing a jacket and trousers. The bow and arrow he holds in his hand, juxtaposed with his European clothes, look like museum props. Geronimo, 75 years old when the photograph was taken, looks just past the camera, fierce and stony-faced.
Geronimo poses before a canvas backdrop of classical stone columns and fake drapery. The paint is chipped and faded. It’s a pretty cheesy, low-rent sort of prop, and one that Carpenter used a lot: many of his subjects appear before it. To his credit, Carpenter makes no effort to fool us into thinking that it is anything more than a prop. Quite a few photos show us one or more of the edges of the canvas.
The fact that so many different people stand before the same backdrop produces a weird effect. You stand before one Indian, and then another, and another. You blink your eyes, and a Chippewa replaces a Sioux, a Jicarilla Apache supplants an Aleut. No single individual seems fixed; they all become fleeting, transient. One minute an Indian is there, the next he’s gone.
And so it was, in 1904.
Less frequently, Carpenter uses a more bizarre backdrop: it depicts a salon, with an ornately carved piano, a large urn, fancy carpeting, and the fronds of a potted palm. The soft, filtered light turns the scene into an ideal vision of the late-19th-century parlor, quintessentially civilized. Against this backdrop Carpenter poses a Tsawadi man wearing the costume of a “wild man”–painted gloves, a fiber skirt, and a big carved and painted wooden mask with a wickedly curved nose and hair made out of feathers. If you ran into him in some misty Pacific Northwest inlet or forest clearing, he would be fearsome indeed. But against the parlor background he looks absurd, his crouching pose awkward and self-conscious. The wild man has been civilized, turned into a curiosity to entertain guests. Perhaps he’d look good next to the potted palm.
Carpenter’s photos undoubtedly contain a wealth of information of interest to the anthropologist, to the descendants of his subjects, and to the layman. Before the exposition Carpenter had spent a good deal of time photographing Native American customs in real Indian villages. His photos are a trove of information about native dress, and those showing Chippewa doing beadwork, a Nootka woman weaving baskets, and Kwakiutl men smoothing a copper plate must be useful to students of Native American cultures or of those crafts. Perhaps many white Americans gained a better understanding of Native Americans by seeing them at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. But the museum casts a pall over everything in it, changes it from something that exists for its own sake into an educational tool. But that is how it was with the Indians in 1904. They had been tamed.
Perhaps the most instructive photo in the exhibition is the only one in which white people appear. It’s taken outdoors. Six Cheyenne in traditional garb–feather headdresses, robes, moccasins, big clay pipes–look straight at the camera. Several look proud, almost haughty; others look tired. Just behind them is the wall of a building, in which we see two windows. In the left window is a young white woman who looks askance at the line of Indians. In the other window, in the center of the frame, is what looks like a family. The father rests his head on his hand; beside him is the mother. Before them are two kids, wearing big flat hats, slouching on the windowsill. The kids look tired. Maybe it’s late in the day and they’ve been wandering around the damn fair for hours. They look at the Indians, maybe; or maybe they’re so tired that they’re not really looking at much of anything. Will they remember this moment–perhaps the last chance they’ll have to see the original inhabitants of their country in full regalia–when they get home, or when they tell the kids at school about the exposition? Or will they have more to say about the cotton candy? It’s awfully ironic that the most candid and revealing shot in an exhibition on Native Americans should be one that depicts their conquerors.
“Charles Carpenter: Native American Portraits” will be on display at the Field Museum of Natural History, Roosevelt Road at Lake Shore Drive, through March 17 of next year. The photographs, in the Webber Resource Center for Native Cultures of the Americas, can be viewed noon to 5 weekdays and 10 to 5 on weekends. Admission to the museum is $3, $2 for students, seniors, and children under 18. It’s free on Thursdays. For more information call 922-9410.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Field Museum of Natural History.