Re-Imagining Indigenous Portraiture: Will Wilson’s Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange

Through collaboration with my sitters, I want to indigenize the photographic exchange. We will generate new forms of authority and autonomy, not assimilation, as the basis for a re-imagined vision of who we are as Native people. – Will Wilson

Lara Evans on the set holding a  QR code for her blog. Photo Credit: Gloria Bell

Lara Evans on the set holding a QR code for her blog. Photo Credit: Gloria Bell

Diné (Navajo) artist Will Wilson is currently working on a portraiture project entitled Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange. He carried out a portion of this work at Indian Art Market 2012 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Wilson used a nineteenth-century photographic technique called wet-plate collodion, popularized after the Great World Exhibition in London, 1851. This process is currently experiencing resurgence and is the very same method that that was used by American photographer Edward Curtis.[1]

Wilson aims to revise a photographic history perpetuated by people including Curtis that has largely positioned indigenous peoples outside of the picture frame, existing in an allochronic space, what cultural anthropologist Johannes Fabian calls a “denial of co-evalness’’ in time and space. Through his photography, Wilson presents indigenous subjects today.

Technique
During Indian Art Market 2012, Wilson photographed several prominent Native American and First Nations art historians and artists including Lara Evans, Joe Horse Capture, Gerald McMaster, Nicholas Galanin, Jessica Metcalfe as well as curators Gaylord Torrence and Janet Berlo.

Will Wilson pouring the collodion onto the plate.  Photo Credit: Gloria Bell

Will Wilson pouring the collodion onto the plate. Photo Credit: Gloria Bell

Wilson set up his studio at the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts. After capturing an image on a tin plate, Wilson worked quickly. First he cleaned the tin plate, coated it with collodion, and then sensitized it in a bath containing silver nitrate. The negative was then fixed. The whole process was completed before the collodion dries, giving it the popular name ‘’wet-plate’’ process.[2]

Wilson scanned the tintypes (also known as ferrotypes) that he created and will use them in future projects; he is currently interested in creating a digital app with all the tintypes, and often uses QR codes in his artwork (see for example his textile project ‘’eye dazzler’’).

Will Wilson pouring off the collodion.  Photo Credit: G Bell

Will Wilson pouring off the collodion. Photo Credit: G Bell

Will Wilson immersing tintype in solution. Photo Credit: Gloria Bell

Will Wilson immersing tintype in solution. Photo Credit: Gloria Bell

VIEWING
The aesthetic produced by this technique was visually rewarding for its timeless quality, the details of each subject were crisply presented in shades of grey.

Many people remarked on how old the photographs looked, as if the tintype was indeed from 161 years ago. To alert the viewer to the twenty-first century reality of indigenous presence, many sitters included technology like Ipads in their portraits.

For example, Lara Evans, a Cherokee art historian, had her portrait taken with a QR scan of her blog ( see the first photograph in this essay) which will enable future viewers to scan the code and view her writing on contemporary Native art.

Nicholas Galanin tintype developing. Photo Credit: Gloria Bell

Nicholas Galanin tintype developing. Photo Credit: Gloria Bell

Tintypes drying. Photo Credit: Gloria Bell

Tintypes drying. Photo Credit: Gloria Bell

Behind the Lens: Sitting

My tintype developing in solution. Photo Credit: G Bell
I also had the opportunity to sit behind the camera lens, and while it was a little nerve-racking, it also allowed me to think about the history of indigenous portraiture.

When I sat there, I thought about all my relations who had sat behind the lens and one portrait in particular of my Cree and Métis family from the Red River Settlement, Winnipeg, in the late 1850s.

In the tintype, my relatives sit up straight, with their Métis sashes prominently on display. They gaze directly into the lens with serious but not stoic faces.

Did my family and other indigenous subjects, have agency within their portraits? While this question has multiple answers, I think that my relations presented themselves as active subjects. They were recording their presence in a direct and immediate way.

Away from the lens, I continue to ponder about how images and reflections become part of our stories as indigenous people.

Wilson’s work carries on this story of representation, shifting the viewer and sitter relationship to one of indigenous presence, fracturing the allochronic glass.

My tintype developing in solution. Photo Credit: Gloria Bell

My tintype developing in solution. Photo Credit: Gloria Bell

 

Will Wilson behind the lens. Photo Credit: Gloria Bell

Will Wilson behind the lens. Photo Credit: Gloria Bell

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