Like a zombie’s hand breaking through the earth, the burial tree stretched skyward. In its clutch was a basket of food and water, hanging above a bundle of blankets. Sewn inside the blankets were the remains of an unidentified Indian man—maybe even a warrior—from one of the many nomadic tribes on the American Plains.
Alexander Gardner stood before the tree with his tripod and large-format camera, his wagon-turned-darkroom only yards away. With a few elegant, carefully timed movements, Gardner permanently captured another aspect of Plains life that no one had asked him to.
It was 1868, and what he had been asked was to photograph the peace talks at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, between a federally-appointed commission and a conglomerate of chiefs from Plains Indian tribes. Never before, and never again, would so many tribal leaders gather in one place, nor would anyone else have the chance to document a way of life that was so rapidly disappearing.
Scottish-born, Gardner had gotten his American career started on the east coast only a decade earlier. Portrait photographer Matthew Brady hired him to help in his New York studio, and then sent him to Washington, D.C. to manage a new branch. Here, Gardner focused mainly on portraiture, a concentration that afforded him the opportunity to photograph more than 90 members of Indian delegations who had come to the capital to negotiate with the government. Once the Civil War started, Gardner took portraits of soldiers leaving for war. As the war worsened, Gardner lugged his equipment to Gettysburg and Antietam, permanently capturing the horrific aftermath of the battles.
Most notably, he photographed the Commander-in-Chief, the newly elected President Abraham Lincoln—twice as many times as any other photographer. Gardner is responsible for two of the most iconic Lincoln portraits: the head-on Gettysburg portrait taken two weeks before the immortal address, and the chilling last photograph taken two months before Lincoln’s assassination—a crack in the glass yielding an ominous symbol.
After Lincoln’s death and the end of the Civil War, a newly reunited nation needed a common mission, a collaborative identity. It lay in the West. The Union Pacific Railroad planned a new route from Kansas City to the Pacific Ocean to make this world more accessible and to tie together the scattered communities that were already there. As was the custom with geographic surveys, they would need someone to photograph the terrain to illustrate the proposed route. The following year the federal government would need someone to photograph the peace talks with Northern Plains Indians at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. And so, Alexander Gardner headed west.
The resulting photographs from both of Gardner’s western excursions are currently on display in an exhibit called Across the Indian Country at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Curated by Jane Aspinwall over several years, these photographs were scattered across the nation in various collections, and this is perhaps the only time they will all be on display together.
What is remarkable about the Western photographs is Gardner’s commitment to illustrating the fullness of life on the plains. So many of the photographs go beyond his simple survey assignments. “Gardner was really interested in the human presence in the West,” Aspinwall says. While his assignment was to photograph the terrain, there is hardly a photograph in the collection that is without people. “He was interested in showing who was there, but also who they were.”
Widely regarded as a man of compassion and empathy, Gardner’s photos demonstrate a deeply held belief in equality among mankind. When taking portraits of members of the tribes, other photographers in his situation likely would have considered them as a generic group. In contrast, when Gardner took these photographs, he carefully labeled each individual by name in his notes. Even his composition speaks to his convictions. In group portraits of Indian leaders and members from the government’s delegation, Gardner has no qualms about having the tribal leaders stand while the white men sit—a symbol that many people traditionally would have interpreted as tribal leaders exerting dominance over the white men.
As taken as he was with the interpersonal relationships, Gardner was equally as fascinated with the deep relationship between people and their land. At times, individuals look like a permanent fixture in their landscape, and it feels like the horizon will never end. In the coming years, the population of western settlers would swell, nomadic tribes would be forced to disperse and disband, and Gardner would quit photography to start an insurance company. But before then, along the proposed railroad route and all around Fort Laramie, Gardner photographed women and children, churches and schools, a woman picking flowers in a field, and a burial tree—all subjects that had nothing to do with his assignments, but that he was compelled to preserve as he documented the fleeting, full life of the plains.
Across the Indian Country: Photographs by Alexander Gardner, 1867–68 is on display at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri until January 11, 2015. Admission is free.