Mathers Museum

Reading Photographs: Photographic Analysis

While Dixon's initial original purpose in this monumental endeavor was to evoke a romantic image of Indians as a "Vanishing Race," his photographs can be used as documents of American Indian culture and history of the early 1900s.

A photograph is a selective recording of a visual scene. The camera does not see all, and what it sees can be intentionally manipulated both by the photographer and by the subject. Understanding the degree of photographic manipulation is necessary for the evaluation of any particular image or set of images.

One of the most common ways photographers manipulated Indian images was through the use of studio props. In much the same way that "old-time" photographers today have a stock of clothing in which to "dress up," photographers might have a stock of "Indian" objects--clothing, war bonnets, tomahawks, etc.--with which they posed their subjects. Thus, one of the first steps in evaluating a set of photographs is to look for objects which appear in more than one photograph.

left, Jim Battiste [W3431],
right Mant Mundi [W3429]

There is very little evidence of such manipulation in Dixon's photographs. One of the few examples is a pair of photographs from the 1913 expedition showing two men from the Siletz Reservation in Oregon wearing the same leather shirt, pants and necklaces. It is not clear who -- Dixon or the men themselves -- decided to have them wear the same clothes.

A more common manipulation is the use of darkroom techniques to manipulate the atmosphere--the background, sky, or clouds--of a photograph. There are several cases which show such photographic manipulation to enhance the romantic image. The most obvious is "The Sunset of a Dying Race."

This image began in 1909, when Dixon had the participants in his "Last Council" ride over a hilltop while he photographed them.

From one of the negatives of this series, he then prepared an "overlay" of celluloid to block out two of the figures. For the final print, the sky was artificially darkened to simulate a sunset. [W1485a]

Still another form of image manipulation is metonymy, the use of a part to stand for the whole. In photography, this is the presentation of only one image of a scene or portrait to stand for the whole person. For instance, Dixon's image of Indians presented through the published photographs was one in which most evidence of Euro-American artifacts was removed, and the subjects are wearing their best "Indian clothes." This can leave the impression that Indians still wore "traditional" clothes into the 20th century. However, the collections also includes snapshots showing more informal and daily dress.
Mountain Chief (Blackfoot)[W1759]

In this second photograph, Mountain Chief (on the right) wears a three piece western-cut suit, a watch fob, and a broad brimmed hat. Indeed, all of the Indians in this photograph wear Euro-American clothes; their only visible clue to their Indian identity is their braids and one feather; there is no reason to suspect that these are not their normal "good clothes." Ironically, it is Dixon who dressed up in a "costume"--crowned campaign hat, riding britches, leather leggings, and high top boots. [W2126]

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Last updated: 8 August 1996
Copyright 1996, The Trustees of Indiana University