Duck Duck Book

38 – a danish photographer
11.10.2006, 8:36 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

A Danish photographer of Idaho Indians : Benedicte Wrensted / by Joanna Cohan Scherer ; foreword by Bonnie C. Wuttunee-Wadsworth.
Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, c2006.
[MCL call number: 770.92 W945s 2006; two copies, no holds]

Photographs of Indian people are a prominent feature of modern histories of the western United States, especially photographs taken between the 1870s and about 1910, and even more especially photographs made by government survey projects and by white art photographers (usually men) who viewed their work as a kind of emergency ethnography — an important effort to save a record of a vanishing race that would soon assimilate with white people. Photographs made under these conditions are of a documentary nature, and for the most part do not record people as they might wish to have been recorded. Even absent the racism and stereotyping that often accompanies images of Indians in U.S. culture, these art and ethnographic photographs are like more like news photos than they are like family snapshots.

Of course, until the invention of the Kodak Brownie, no one took snapshots. If a person wanted a photograph for her own or her family’s purposes, she went to a photographer’s studio and had one made. By the beginning of the twentieth century, studio photographs were within the reach of many working people, and were an accepted part of modern life.

Danish immigrant Benedicte Wrensted operated a photography studio in Pocatello, Idaho between 1895 and 1912. Her business was largely studio portraiture, though she did photograph street scenes, weddings, graduations, sports teams, school classes, the local firefighting company, the Boy Scouts, social club gatherings, and many other groups and occasions. A large portion of Wrensted’s portrait clients were Northern Shoshone, Bannock, and Lemhi Indians who lived in Pocatello, on the Fort Hall reservation, and in other nearby places.

Naturally, many of Wrensted’s photographs have survived in the families of the people who hired her, but a large collection of negatives somehow made their way to the Bureau of Indian Affairs photographs collection in the National Archives (how they got there is actually a mystery — the National Archives has no record of their acquisition). From there, author Joanna Cohan Scherer became interested in Wrensted’s photographs, and her research eventually led her to write this book about Wrensted’s work and the people she photographed.

A Danish Photographer of Idaho Indians reproduces several hundred of Wrensted’s photographs, together with Scherer’s history of Wrensted’s professional life, an analysis of her use of props and her photographic techniques, and of the contrasts between Wrensted’s portraits of Indians and those made by white male ethnographic photographers.

Some of Wrensted’s photographs of Shoshone, Bannock, and Lemhi Indian people have been used by the National Archives as generic representations of Indians (for example, on the cover of the 1991 National Archives and Records Administration telephone directory). This generic “here’s an Indian” kind of use is no doubt familiar to most of you; it is the way in which historic images of Indians are most often displayed in our culture.

But Scherer presents Wrensted’s photographs and their content in a careful, attentive way, therefore providing stark contrast between her treatment of these images of Indian people and the treatment they are most often given. Scherer’s examination of the lives and stories of the Indians who are the subjects of Wrensted’s portraits is perhaps the most interesting facet of the book. Some people and families came to have their portraits made again and again — the Edmo family, in particular, are featured in dozens of photographs. Some of the portrait subjects have been identified by comparison to other photographs saved by family members, or by people’s assessments of family resemblances, or memories of their long-dead relatives’ faces. Even the book’s illustration captions reflect this attention to the stories of the portraits’ subjects.

Wrensted’s photographs are lovely, worth looking at for their artistic and technical competence and general historical interest alone; but these images are very powerful when woven together with a bit of the stories of the people they portray, of the woman who made them, and the historical context in which they were produced.


1 Comment so far
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This book was given to me and it was a delightful surprise, because it is a book of my family. I was helpin my aunt do geneaology and she gave this book to me and i will cherish it forever. It is a beautiful compilation of names, dates and events. Thank you for taking the time to do so.

Comment by Karri Deschine

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