Modern Take On Tintype Photos Explores History and Identity

Will Wilson checks the focus on exposure for his portrait of Suzanne Mealer and her daughter Adaha Dakota Jedlicka. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
Diana Vallier, a Golden Age Princess for the Ponca Tribe, fixes her sister Renee Ebert's hair before her portrait. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
Diana Vallier looks at her sister Renee Ebert, deputy director of tribal affairs for the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, through Wilson's camera. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
Some of the final portraits Will Wilson took during his two-day visit to the Sheldon Museum of Art. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
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February 21, 2015 - 8:35am

When you look at photos of Native Americans from the 1800s, you're seeing photos taken by photographers who often posed their subjects in costumes. It was an inaccurate picture of Native American life. Today photographer Will Wilson is taking portraits with the same kind of tintype camera to challenge what we think those photos show.


Suzanne Mealer is sitting in a chair in the open, airy marble lobby of the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, surrounded by studio lights with her four year old daughter, Adahya Dakota Jedlicka, in her lap. They’re a few feet in front of a boxy camera that looks straight out of the 1800s. Actually, it is.

Above, Wilson's setup for taking portraits and, below, what Wilson's setup looks like from the sitter's point of view. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)

“It was invented in 1851,” Will Wilson said. Wilson is the photographer behind the camera, He's a tall man with his hair gathered into a bun on top of his head. “And pretty much until about 1880 it was the process.” Wilson has been taking photos with this camera for three years for a project he calls the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange.

Behind the camera

“I’m Navajo, and I’ve been doing photography for like 30 years. At some point, I had a critical awakening in terms of the way representation of Native Americans had been kind of used historically. And you know wanted to respond to that by being an Indian myself, making these photographs,” he explained.

He’s taken over two thousand photos over the past three years, everywhere from Santa Fe – where he’s from – to Russia and Australia. The project is open to anyone, but Wilson started and has continued to focus on taking portraits of indigenous people. Many of the 20 sitters for his two-day residency at the Sheldon are Native Americans from Nebraska. Mealer and her daughter are the first sitters.

After preparing a wet plate for the camera, Wilson spends about five minutes positioning the lights and getting the focus just right on mother and daughter. Then he slides the plate into the camera.

“Okay, look right here. Can you open your eyes a little bit?” Wilson directed from behind the camera and then ducks underneath a cloth to see the image coming through the lens. The back of the camera is basically a window to see the image that's coming through the lens and that will be projected onto the metal plate. It's easier to see in the dark, than in the light. "Ready?" Wilson called out, and set off the flash with a loud pop.

See more of the photos Will Wilson has taken as part of the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange.(Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)

“You can relax!” Wilson said and emerged from under the cloth. Wilson always invites his participants to see the photos develop. He takes Mealer and Jedlicka to the darkroom he’s set up in an ice fishing tent in the museum parking lot.

After zipping up the tent he puts the plate into plastic basin. He opens a bottle. “This is kind of stinky stuff. This is the developer. It just kinda smells like vinegar. Really strong vinegar. So if everything worked out we should start to get start to see an image," Wilson explained.

A shape starts to bloom out of the blank metal slide. It is really cool. Wilson moves the photo into a water basin and then fix to stop the development.He points towards the top of the picture. “So right in there are your heads.”

“Oh, look at Adahya! Wow, her eyes pop out, look at that.” Mealer exclaimed. Mealer turns to her daughter, “You look really Indian!”

In the photo, Mealer and Jedlicka both appear much darker than they do in real life. Mealer was a little surprised by the result.

“She looked real Indian in that picture! Yes! Very much so!  And then looking at myself, I’m half-Native American, and I’m half non-Native, so my cheekbones, you could really see me cheekbones in the picture, how they popped out more in that image than normal. I really thought I looked different! Just very old fashioned," Mealer said.

What the camera does

Over the years, Wilson has noticed this happening again and again as he develops tintypes.

Left, Suzanne Mealer and Adahya Jedlicka getting ready for their portrait, and, right, the final photo. (Photos by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)

“The emulsion does really interesting things to skin tone. It generally makes people darker. But it makes some people really darker. Like if you have reds and yellows in your skin. In some ways that process historically was a race-ing technology like it encoded race on the image," Wilson said. "I think that when we look at some of the historic photographic images of Native Americans, they probably weren’t as dark as they resolve in those images you know .Like everybody kind of assumes photography is neutral, you know, but it’s not necessarily."

In front of the camera

For Wilson the project is ultimately about identity. He encourages people to bring something important to them to their sittings. Wilson has taken portraits of Ponca tribe members in ceremonial dresses, of a pair of artists holding a glass orb they use to make paintings, and of people holding personal mementos like a watch. A lot of times people don’t bring anything. Mealer only brought her daughter for her portrait.

“She’s my only daughter, so I thought it’d be really neat to have a picture with her. And I know my mom would love it,” Mealer laughed.

“Do you see yourself, Adahya? Look! What do you think? Isn’t that pretty cool?” Mealer points at the photo. Jedlicka looks at the portrait, wide-eyed, but not saying anything.

Wilson jokes, “She’s like, I don’t know…”

Mealer laughs, “She’s just so serious. She looks like an angry baby in that picture.”


Hear why Will Wilson started the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange in this extended interview.

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