- The Tlingit Encounter with Photography
Historical photographs of Native Americans are imbued with stories far more complex than those photographs were originally intended to tell. Sharon Bohn Gmelch, professor of anthropology at Union College, studied hundreds of images related to Tlingit culture in thirteen North American photographic collections and conducted many oral history interviews while researching The Tlingit Encounter with Photography. The photographs cannot, she explains, simply be read as “factual documents from the past” or in “aesthetic terms.” They must instead be approached “as cultural artifacts taken for specific purposes and imbedded in the intellectual climate and power relations of their time and as visual representations that can reveal those biases” (3).
Gmelch’s research into the Tlingit experience stems from a summer spent in Alaska on the Alsek River and in the village of Yakutat in 1982. Conversations with a local curator led her to look through two collections (at Sheldon Jackson College and the Sitka National Historical Park) of the work of Elbridge W. Merrill, a Sitka-based photographer whose little-known pictures taken between 1899 and 1929 proved to be significant historical documents. She embarked on a long (frequently interrupted) research odyssey that combined her interest in visual anthropology and interethnic relations with her love of Alaska. The project expanded from a study of Merrill and his career into a broader exploration of the “photographic colonization” (xi) of the Tlingit by European Americans and Tlingit uses of photography. Much has been written about Native Americans and First Nations of the Northwest coast, but Gmelch’s book is the first to focus [End Page 379] on the photography-related experiences of the Tlingit as they adjusted to a period of disorienting intrusions (from the 1860s to the 1920s).
The book includes 128 illustrations, most of which are photographs taken by survey personnel, tourists, studio photographers, and resident amateurs. The images include portraits of individual Tlingits; group portraits at meeting houses and industrial schools, during potlatches, and so on; funereal displays; and sundry activities such as canoeing, fish scaling, gambling, cannery work, weaving, basket making, preparation of skins, cooking classes, tooth-brushing demonstrations, vending handicrafts, and reenactments of shamanistic healing. More panoramic shots include landscapes and seascapes, totem pole arrangements, and pictures of Tlingit houses and streets. Informative captions call attention to noteworthy aspects of the illustrations and connect them to the main text.
Although early photographic portrayals suggested that the Tlingits were primitive and superstitious, the balance of the photographic record seems relatively benign, implying that the Tlingits were somehow superior to Native Americans in the rest of North America because of their impressive clan houses, permanent villages, monumental carved art, and carefully crafted and decorated sea-going canoes: “The impulse to demonize the Tlingit through photography, . . . to justify their exploitation or extermination or to depict them [as a] ‘vanishing race,’ . . . to [justify] efforts to ‘save’ them through missionization, reservations, or boarding schools . . . did not exist to the same extent it did with Indians to the south” (186–87). Photography was, rather, used by outsiders to “exoticize” the Tlingits for tourism and depict them as “tamed”—intelligent, under control, and open to acculturation (187).
The author asserts nevertheless that the Tlingits were in many respects “colonized or victimized” (186) by European American photography. Many photographs were taken without the knowledge or consent of the subjects. Tourists, for example, seldom asked permission and often took pictures surreptitiously. Scientists, collectors, and professional photographers often used pressure or subterfuge, for example, insisting that their projects had government authorization. Others took pictures despite Tlingit objections. After the earliest photographic encounters, the Tlingits were able to exercise some degree of control (e.g., charging to sit for portraits or to reenact a scene) and also found their own uses for the photographic medium. When they were photographed, they frequently selected poses as well as the clothing and objects that they wanted to appear in the picture: “Chiefs and other persons of high rank . . . used photography intentionally to assert their status or to demonstrate their connections...