- Horace Poolaw: Photographer of American Indian Modernity by Laura E. Smith
By Laura E. Smith. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. vii +189 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $45.00 cloth.
According to Laura E. Smith, her book on Kiowa photographer Horace Poolaw (1906–1984) stretches the boundaries of modernism by including Indigenous beliefs and traditions and by ceasing its temporal boundaries. For Smith, modernism is an ongoing project that can now embrace the creative efforts of all, including Indians.
But by stretching the boundaries of modernism, the text unfortunately succumbs to modernism's key values, in large part through its very nature as a monograph, a traditional art historical format that has long valorized male artists. Simply trying to "add Indians" to art history or modernism is as futile a task as trying to add women. Attempting inclusion fails to demolish the rigid structures of modernism itself.
If Smith's text does not exactly help us re-think or challenge the values of modernism, it does situate Poolaw's work in his time and [End Page 151] cultures (Kiowa and white), providing a useful examination of the life and work of this significant photographer. The text's final chapter on Poolaw and Indian painting seems unnecessary and not fully convincing; however, other chapters help us understand how Poolaw and others maintained a sense of Native identity in the face of early twentieth-century US government policies and intervention. The book explains the larger social significance of what initially seem to be unassuming private family portraits. The text demonstrates how his images parody Indian stereotypes even as he produced commercial work that appealed to both Indians and whites with photographs of warbonnets, one of the key signifiers of "Indianness."
By relying on many archives, extensive secondary sources, close readings of photographs, and perhaps most importantly, the blessing of Poolaw's family, Smith has crafted a solid social history that helps us to think beyond Edward S. Curtis's nostalgic salvaging process. This book helps readers understand that warbonneted Indians are just as likely to appear in a gleaming 1920s Lincoln Model L automobile as they are in a manufactured "war dance." The book usefully follows this methodology, continually engaging and explaining Poolaw's doubled life, providing a sense of contemporary social pressures as well as long-standing tribal values.