National Museum of the American Indian on view through Jan. 15, 2015
How do you obliterate a myth that has staying power? Native American art photographers Larry McNeil and Will Wilson decided to beat the mythmakers at their own game. In late 19th century America, the reality of the tragic fate of many indigenous Americans was obscured by the romantic notion of the "vanishing race." Photographers of the period-most famously, Edward Curtis-drew on the popular platinum printing process, valued for its permanency, in their portraits of Native Americans. The lustrous tonal qualities they achieved in these idealized photos helped to perpetuate the myth.
Now, McNeil and Wilson remind us that things are seldom, if ever, what they seem. In works currently displayed in the Indelible exhibitions at the American Indian Museum, both artists used the platinum process to send the message that the so-called vanished race is still alive and kicking. The result is a show comprising 25 pieces that are not always that pretty, even in platinum, but are compelling, moving, and sometimes outrageously funny. The idea for Indelible struck, says Heather Shannon, the exhibition's curator and the museum's photo archivist, during the planning for a symposium on the platinum process. "I thought I could apply ideas I'd been having about 19th-century photographic practices- especially the tension between a process [platinum printing] and an idea [a vanishing people]-and place them in a contemporary setting, using the work of these two outstanding photographers. Many contemporary practitioners still look to the platinum process for aesthetic reasons." She says that Wilson and McNeil were delighted at a chance to "blow this myth apart" through the exhibition of their platinum work.
McNeil, she says, uses the platinum process to explore the aesthetic relationship between light and dark to deliver a critical interpretation of American Indian history. In his "Feather" series, for example, the feather is a metaphor for the history of Native Americans. "He uses the rich tonality of platinum prints to create the gleaming whites of the feathers against deep, dark backgrounds." The images evoke life and death, but "there's also this idea of the feather that faded and then rallied, surviving just as Native American people did," Shannon says.
"Wilson creates portraits that are empowering, that assert Native American identity and individuality," Shannon explains. "Edward Curtis took thousands of photos, but he was less interested in his sitters' individuality. Will's portraits assert that individuality" and he lets his sitters pose themselves. "It's very much about who the subjects are and how they want to be perceived by the viewer." What's special about Wilson's work, Shannon adds, is its performative aspects. "What we see on the walls of an exhibition is the end product of that interaction or that performance. Will's is an ideologically or theoretically driven project. When he coats his paper, he leaves the brushwork visible as a reminder that the photograph is a representation, something that we often forget. There's a hand of an artist here-it's not a simple window on the world."
Shannon hopes that museumgoers who view Indelible will be challenged to think more critically about photography. "A photo can be endlessly retextualized," she says. "That's what makes it so powerful-and why we have to think critically about it."
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Written by Cecilia Reed- copied from October 2014 the Associate program guide