Themes: Informal Portraits

Full Video Transcription

William Frog. By Gertrude Käsebier. Photographic History Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

As explained in the Formal Portraits section, Gertrude Käsebier's studio portraits of Sioux Indian performers in Buffalo Bill's Wild West continues a long tradition of formal portraiture begun by the colonial powers in the 1700s through paintings, and later by the American federal government through photographs. Formal portraits have a rich and often contentious past as a tool of empire to assert control over and manipulate the image of a colonized people. By the turn of the twentieth century, formal portraiture followed an unstated regimented style. Breaking from this tradition, some of Käsebier's more compelling photographs remain what can be classified as informal portraits.

Informal portraits are typically defined against the standard set by formal portraits. The first takes the definition of a portrait rather literally in that a photographic portrait is considered any likeness of a person or persons, thus making the majority of Käsebier's outdoor photographs also informal portraits. Because the outdoor images are not carefully constructed in posing, lighting, or even clothing as they would typically be inside a studio, this type of informal portrait is easy to identify.

Chief Joe Black Fox (Informal Portrait). By Gertrude Käsebier. Photographic History Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

The informal portraits taken inside Käsebier's studio provide a more nuanced distinction between formal and informal portraits. The two that epitomize this most are the portraits of Joe Black Fox. Defying the norm for formal studio portraits, Black Fox engages the photographer (and the viewer) through his direct gaze. Unlike formal sittings, Black Fox is also shown in movement. Formal portraits typically required stillness from the sitter, a throw-back from the longer exposure times demanded by first cameras. Black Fox's informal portrait seems to catch him mid-action, the smoke rising from his cigarette. The only tell for the exposure time is the amount of ash accumulating on his cigarette. The hint of a smile also defies the legacy of unsmiling, stoic formal portrait, also due to the previously long exposure times.

The majority of Käsebier's informal studio portraits make an attempt at candid photographs. Whether this is mid-action, as in the Black Fox photograph, or simply the appearance of catching the sitter off-guard as in William Frog's portrait of him seated on the studio floor, her informal portraits attempt to capture the character of the Sioux sitters. Käsebier does this through candid body language, action, and facial expression. By depicting the "Show Indians" in their non-posed states, Käsebier's photographs give their potential viewers the illusion of insight into a host of personalities.

For the turn-of-the-century common viewer, Native American personalities were often flattened and warped by pulp fiction, news stories, and previous visual representation. Even Buffalo Bill's Wild West forced retellings of Native American events through Euroamerican perception and perpetuated stereotypical imagery. Käsebier's informal portraits demonstrate the intricacies of personality, character, and even charm of the Sioux sitters. However, with little exception, these photographs were not published and did not, therefore, reach the eyes of the common viewer. Today, these informal portraits remain among the most significant of Käsebier's long and distinguished career, but perhaps the least known.

For a direct comparison between Formal and Informal portraiture as defined by the curator including the Joe Black Fox photographs, explore our Comparative Gallery.

Search the collection to view all Käsebier's informal portraits.