Themes of Käsebier's "Show Indian" Photographs
In 1898, Käsebier was busy establishing an independent career using her professional studio and making prints that would advance the acceptance of photography as a fine art during the pictorialist movement. Her portraits and photographs are expressive, reflecting an interest in her subjects as individuals. Käsebier biographer Barbara L. Michaels appropriately emphasizes the two basic themes of the photographer's work: independence and solitude. Photography provided Käsebier the means for an independent professional life and artistic achievement. In the same year, Käsebier took advantage of the opportunity to photograph Native American members of William "Buffalo Bill" Cody's performance troupe.
While books have been written interpreting photographs taken of Native American in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (from images of individuals, groups, and tribes, to depictions of homelands), few of these works document the relatively small number of Indians who chose to leave the government-imposed reservation system to participate as performers in the popular Wild West shows of the period. The controversy arising from contracts Cody made with the United States government to employ American Indians actually fueled the efforts of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and Christian reformers alike to press the government for better treatment of all Indians in the country. Legislative battles over the rights of American Indians continued in Washington, D. C., throughout the history of Buffalo Bill's Wild West, from 1883 to 1913. But whether celebrated, and yet exploited, by the Wild West show, some Indians welcomed the opportunity to travel with Cody, therefore, freeing themselves for six months each year from the degrading confines of the reservations where they were forbidden to wear tribal dress, hunt, or dance.
Many of the Wild West "Show Indians," as they would become known, were Sioux Indian men from Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota. The Smithsonian's collection of more than 100 portraits by Käsebier includes likenesses of select members of the Sioux who performed with Buffalo Bill's Wild West. These humanizing photographs are far from the exploitive marketing images and posters created by the Wild West Company to promote their arena show. The Käsebier photographs were made for her own personal project and consumption. She shared them primarily with family and her peers working in the New York modern art scene of the period.
The Smithsonian's collection of Käsebier's photographs goes beyond the initial studio portraiture taken in April, 1898 in Käsebier's studio on New York's 5th Avenue. Her lasting friendship with several of the performers led to multiple studio sittings and as well as other photographic opportunities which ventured beyond the bounds of her pictorial studio photography. Additionally, Käsebier received drawings from her sitters. While many of these drawings were made during the initial studio visit, others were included in private letters exchanged in the following decades of Käsebier's friendships with the performers, most notably Joe Black Fox and Sammy Lone Bear.
Division of the "Show Indian" photographs into categories is a necessary component to understanding Käsebier's collection. With a heavy editorial hand, Michelle A. Delaney, Director of the Smithsonian's Consortium for Understanding the American Experience, has curated the photographs into several themes as listed below. Each theme serves as a portal to an interpretive gallery of Käsebier's portraits of the Sioux Indian photographs, complete with a textual explanation of the characteristics of the photographs in each theme and a brief video interview with the curator.