The Life of Gertude Käsebier

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While Gertrude Käsebier ranks as one of the most important American photographers of her time, few publications have focused on her life and the breadth of her work and legacy. Many Americans today know little of her extraordinary career as a prominent woman in American photography. She worked more than twenty years as a commercial portrait photographer of influential Americans and Europeans-statesmen, socialites, industrialists, artists, and authors.

Portrait of Gertrude Käsebier. Photographic History Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Gertrude Stanton grew up in the boom of the Colorado Gold Rush, often finding herself the only child around. As a result, her parents gave her permission to play with the local Indian children. After the Civil War, her family moved back east to New York. About ten years later on May 18, 1874, Gertrude Stanton married Edward Käsebier, a shellac importer from Weisbaden, Germany. Soon thereafter, the mother of three embarked on an artistic career, first through classical painting, then through photography.

Though Edward did not share his wife's interest in the arts, he willingly paid for her to attend art school when their children were older. And when Gertrude enrolled in Brooklyn's Pratt Institute to study portrait painting in 1889, Edward agreed to move from their home in New Jersey back to Brooklyn. Gertrude graduated four years later, but remained enrolled for another two years of study at the art school. During that time she enjoyed summer excursions to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and Europe while chaperoning Frank Vincent DuMond's Pratt art classes studying in Paris and Crécy-en-Brie, France, in the summer of 1894. During the summer of 1894, Käsebier took her children to visit their grandmother in Germany. There, she apprenticed in photography for a Germany chemist and her interest grew. When she returned, she decided to devote her career to importing the same classical art training into her photography. By 1897, she opened her own photography studio.

In the same year her studio opened, Käsebier's first solo exhibitions of photography were held at the Boston Camera Club and at the Pratt Institute, expanding awareness of her skill in artistic portraiture and painterly printing techniques. Poised on the forefront of an emerging American art photography movement, pictorialism, Käsebier within two years established herself as a ranking professional, and her photographs were included in the article, "The Pose in Portraiture," published in Photo-Miniature, May 1899. Her portraits of young models were illustrations of the best effort to capture likenesses that "preserve simplicity in the portrait, so that the interest concentrates on the personality of the sitter, and all else is subordinated." ("The Pose in Portraiture" 1899, 51) The author also used the term "human documents" for portraits, a term used at the time, and one that Käsebier herself would adopt when characterizing and titling several of her own portraits. ("The Pose in Portraiture" 1899, 45-51)

Portrait of Gertrude Käsebier. Photographic History Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

While building and solidifying her professional reputation and support within the photographic community, Käsebier sought an opportunity to bring her lifelong interest in Native American culture to a portrait project of great personal significance. As she watched the 1898 parade of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show pass her Fifth Avenue studio towards Madison Square Garden, her focus locked on the Native American performers. Memories of her childhood on the plains came flooding back, and her affection and respect for Native cultures inspired her to write a note to William "Buffalo Bill" Cody requesting a studio visit with the Sioux Indians traveling with the arena show: a visit with "an old friend of their tribe" and a portrait sitting. A few weeks passed before she had an answer-Cody had granted her request. ("Sioux Chief's Party Calls" 1898) Käsebier's friend, Adele Miller, may have helped to arrange the studio visit through her family's friendship with Buffalo Bill. (Michaels 1992, 8)

On Sunday morning, April 24, 1898, Käsebier prepared with great anticipation to receive her special guests for tea at ten o'clock, and later to make their portraits. She hoped to photograph three or four of the Native Americans. Cody and his managers selected nine Sioux men to send to the studio: Chief Iron Tail, High Heron, Has-No-Horses, Samuel Lone Bear, Joseph Black Fox, Red Horn Bull, Shooting Pieces, Phillip Standing Soldier, and Kills-Close-to-the-Lodge. An eager Käsebier planned to arrive at the studio an hour early for final preparations, but her guests, equally eager, were waiting for her inside when she arrived. The Sioux and their Wild West chaperone were served tea and "hot frankfurters between unbuttered bread," followed by a lengthy three-hour portrait session. Käsebier found her visitors polite and candid but, possessing a strong and almost impenetrable reserve when posing for the camera. ("Sioux Chief's Party Calls" 1898)

The tea and portrait session was reported immediately on the women's page of the New York Times, and several years later in the popular journal Everybody's Magazine, January 1901. An article, possibly written by Käsebier or a close friend, reproduced her photographs, drawings made for her by the Sioux Indians at her studio, and excerpts of letters exchanged. In "Sioux Party Chief's Call," the Times detailed the meeting and friendships made. The resulting portraits were termed a "great success . . . works of art," and as far as the author could discern, appreciated by the sitters. ("Sioux Chief's Party Calls" 1898) In 1901, an article possibly written by Käsebier herself in Everybody's Magazine described the clothing worn by the men especially for the occasion,

"They wore feathered head-dresses that were marvels; short jackets fairly covered with elaborate designs in solid beadwork; flannel shirts of vivid red, blue, and green; blankets beaded and decorated with patterns of United States flags; moccasins edged with beads or dyed porcupine quills; and furs of otter skin. Brass and silver bands and silver rings." ("Some Indian Portraits" 1901)

Since the beginnings of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, many American photographers pursued a specialty in photographing Native Americans, documenting the vanishing Indian. Käsebier did not pursue the same path. One photographer, Edward Curtis, tried to fully document Native Americans at the turn of the century. Curtis began a multivolume project in 1906 of photographing and romanticizing Native Americans and their culture, using costumes and props for the Indians so photographed. David F. Barry, Frank Matsura, and Karl Moon, were also well-known for their portraits of Indians. Photographers Heyn and Matzen of Omaha, Nebraska, photographed some of the same Sioux Indians as Käsebier. Her personal project, on the other hand, resonated from her interest in the group of Sioux traveling with Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Käsebier's photography emphasizes a small group of "chosen" Indians living a drastically different lifestyle than most of their tribe for six months each year. However, there is no evidence that Käsebier participated in any of the known active Indian reform groups of the period working to improve the lives of Native Americans. Historian Rayna Green reflected on the Smithsonian's Käsebier collection of Indian photographs in a short article in the History of Photography, Spring 2000 issue, "Most [Indians] who did not look like Buffalo Bill's show Indians did not get their pictures taken . . . certainly not the impoverished, just reservationized, defeated, hungry, missionary donation-box clothed aboriginals." (Green 2000, 59) The Indians traveling with the Wild West wore traditional clothing then forbidden on the reservation.