- Charles M. Russell: Photographing the Legend by Larry Len Peterson
Few American artists have received the considerable biographical attention given to Charles M. Russell, and Larry Len Peterson’s recent book, Charles M. Russell: Photographing the Legend, complements the existing literature. Unlike most biographies of Russell, however, Photographing the Legend examines his life and legacy through the numerous portraits shot of Russell from his early days as a cowboy to the last years of his life as the premier “Cowboy Artist.” The book contains numerous photographs, many previously unpublished, and it will prove invaluable to future research in this respect.
Photographing the Legend argues that both Russell and his wife Nancy often used photography to fashion the artist’s identity not only as an authentic interpreter of a vanished West but also as a celebrity and a financial success. Peterson follows Russell’s life chronologically from his first cowhand job at Judith Basin to the posthumous use of his image to market his estate. Following an introduction by scholar Brian W. Dippie, Peterson details Russell’s early aspiration to be a cowboy and then an artist, after the sensation of his watercolor illustration, Waiting for a Chinook (1887). Russell’s growing reputation as an artist coincided with the advent of both dry plate photography and Kodak’s mail-order cameras, which provided average Americans with an accessible means of recording daily life. After Russell married Nancy in 1896, she used Kodak cameras to document her husband’s life and career, although professional photographers were employed more frequently in that respect. Numerous photographers, including Edward S. Curtis, Roland Reed, Dorothea Lange, Clarence S. Bull, and Hildore C. Eklund, helped to shape Russell’s Western persona.
To that end, Russell used dress and setting to further his artistic identity, often under Nancy’s influence or guidance. Rarely after 1900 was Russell photographed for public consumption without his wide-brimmed hat and signature sash, except when he donned mock American Indian garb. Although he may have been playing Indian, he likely hoped, perhaps misguidedly, such photographs would express his deep appreciation and knowledge [End Page 842] of Native American culture. Russell also posed with Native friends on countless occasions at Glacier National Park, in front of his studio at Great Falls, Montana, or especially at the Sun Dance at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in 1905. As Peterson argues, the prints of the latter “were testimony that Russell still lived among the Indians. Easterners found them captivating.” While that may have been one of the intentions behind the photographs, Peterson has more difficulty demonstrating how these images were received by Easterners or the American public at large. Russell and Nancy clearly intended to use photography as promotion, as Photographing the Legend proves, but the ways in which these photographs were disseminated and used to further his artistic career is frequently unclear in the book. Peterson devotes considerable attention to Russell’s friendships with Howard Eaton and Frank Linderman or fellow artists Philip R. Goodwin, Ed Borein, and protégé Joe De Yong, yet there is no indication that photographs of these relationships had any currency in the promotion of Russell’s career. It also seems unlikely that some of the photographs illustrated in the book were ever intended for public consumption, like those of Russell and Nancy in social settings or the many photographs of their adopted son Jack.
Peterson’s argument is more convincing in sections devoted exclusively to Russell’s painting career and his friendships with celebrities of the 1920s. Photographs documenting his trips outside of Montana, or his work on the murals for the Montana State Capitol, likely had real or perceived value to Nancy in the promotion of her husband’s career. Norman Forsyth’s stereograph of Russell at the Pablo-Allard Buffalo Drive in 1909, for example, also proves that images of Russell had marketable value. Russell enjoyed palpable fame by the 1920s, and he and Nancy spent an increasing amount of time in California among Hollywood...