Going Platinum: Reframing the Native American Experience

I had heard of platinum prints before, but I wasn’t really sure what made them unique. So I asked Heather Shannon, a photo archivist at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), to explain their significance. Here’s what I learned:

Invented in the 1870s, platinum is a way of making photographic prints that have a few standout qualities—wide tonal range that creates deep blacks, creamy whites, and every shade of gray in between; a diffused look that comes from the way the image is embedded in the fibers of the actual paper; and most importantly, at least for the purposes of this post, platinum prints are lasting. They are, to use the word chosen for the title of an exhibition currently on view at NMAI, Indelible.

The show features work by artists Larry McNeil and Will Wilson, two contemporary Native American photographers who are reclaiming the historic technique. The platinum process was used by famed 19th century photographers like Edward Curtis to create images that romanticized American Indians, when in reality their communities were experiencing serious upheaval. Today, these two artists are revising stories of the past and telling new ones using a technique that was once employed to simplify the existence of North America’s indigenous peoples.

The two artists approach their work from different ends of the spectrum. McNeil, in his Feather series, creates metaphorical photos that tell an overarching story of American Indian people—cycles of death and rebirth, hardship, and potential.

Wilson forgoes the comprehensive for the specific, creating detailed tintype portraits of contemporary people, which he then scans and uses to make platinum prints. Unlike early depictions of Native Americans, his process involves a high degree of collaboration and exchange with his sitters who are both American Indians and non-natives.

To better understand their work, I talked to both McNeil and Wilson over the phone. They each shared a bit more about the stories behind their projects and their love of historic photo processes.

LARRY MCNEIL: The Feather project was initiated by a request from Theresa Harlan [no relation to the author] who was director of the CN Gorman museum in Sacramento. She asked different artists to make work related to the Columbus quincentennial in 1992. I still remember pretty clearly thinking “No, I don’t want to do anything celebrating Columbus.” But on second thought, it would be a great opportunity to do something from the perspective of indigenous people—to tell what that anniversary meant to us.

I spent about ten days photographing people initially, and it just wasn’t working. One morning a friend left a feather on my car door. So there I was standing outside my car just looking at this beautiful feather, and I thought, “This might be a metaphorical stand-in for what it means to be an indigenous person living here in the Americas, 500 years after the arrival of Columbus.”

MCNEIL (continued): The image titled 1491 is about how the Americas were before Columbus’s arrival. I like to imagine what would have happened had he never arrived here, especially as humanity is in the midst of this ecological nightmare. Native American people prized sustainability. They were able to live in the environment without polluting it. We’re at such a unique place in the history of humanity where we can still change things if we want. What’s going on now and in the future is relevant to all of humanity, and thinking of how we can make a visual representation of it using this 19th century process is kind of fun.

Platinum has always seemed magical because it’s handcrafted. You mix the emulsion in the darkroom, and you hand paint it on to the paper. There’s a scientific aspect to platinum, and there’s a part of it that has to do with artistic vision, but there’s a third part to it too. Every once in a while a person will get a completely different look even if they do the process the same way. I can’t explain it, so I just say “Okay, this came down from the photo gods.”

WILL WILSON: I’ve asked myself if there’s a difference in the way that Native Americans think about photography. It reminds me of the adage that the Native Americans didn’t want to be photographed because they thought their souls were going to be stolen. I think they had a really complex understanding of the power of representation. For someone to actually walk away with this perfect image of them was problematic. Like “Okay so what are you doing to do with that?” If anything I think that’s why people had a suspicion about the process.

WILSON (continued): Understanding the problematic history and the way photography was used [to portray American Indians] put me in a pickle as a photographer. I didn’t feel like it was good practice for me to be putting up images of other folks, particularly Native Americans. So in a way my project, the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX), is the perfect solution because it’s about an exchange. It’s thinking about representation. It’s about slow photography. I’m walking people through the process of what it means to have their photo taken.

The folks I photograph can come into my portable darkroom and be a part of the whole process. There’s a moment I never get tired of: When you put the tintype, which starts as a negative, into the fixer, it transforms from a negative to a positive because the fixer removes the unexposed silver. People are amazed by that. I get to relive it every time I do the process with a new person. I’m doing pretty much the same process that was created in 1851, and there’s some magic to it that I think people are really excited about. I’ve done maybe 2,000 of these now, and they’re all unique, and I can kind of remember each one.

After hearing from McNeil and Wilson, I knew I needed to go see the prints in person. Tucked away in a corner of the NMAI, I spent a few hours admiring the photographs, which all displayed hints of the human hand. At times, I couldn’t tell whether McNeil’s images were photographic prints or charcoal drawings. And Wilson’s photos are so elegantly detailed, but with an intentional kind of imperfection that reminded me of the serendipity innate to analog processes. These indications of the handmade reminded me that that the images weren’t just created by machines but by flesh and blood, propelled by a dedication to working out the stories of the past and creating space for conversations about the future. Their medium of choice reminds us that the conversation, though sometimes surprising, is certain to continue.

Visit Indelible at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., on view from June 7, 2014-January 5, 2015. McNeil and Wilson will be in the Potomac Atrium of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, October 25 and Sunday, October 26th. Wilson will create tinthype portraits of museum visitors for CIPX on Saturday and display the results on Sunday. McNeil will show digital work from Washington, D.C. and invite others to upload their own work to his site.
 
See more work from Larry McNeil and Will Wilson on their websites.

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