Roland Reed's portraits of a vanished past

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 21, 2012 - 7:56 AM

A new book rediscovers Midwest photographer Roland Reed and images he took of American Indian life a century ago.

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Roland Reed most likely photographed this encampment of Piegan Indians (once known as Blackfeet) in or near what is now Glacier National Park. The image is undated, but Reed worked in that area from about 1910 to 1915, after he had closed his Minnesota studio and moved to Montana.

Photo: Roland Reed, Afton Press

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Growing up in a log cabin near Oshkosh, Wis., after the Civil War, Roland Reed envied the tall, slender American Indian boys who slipped through the surrounding forest en route to the nearby Fox River.

"I longed to join them," he wrote later, "and as I grew into manhood and left my native state, the call of those old friends of the forests and lakes never left me."

By the time he died in 1934, Reed had made hundreds of photos of American Indians with glass-plate negatives he laboriously hauled to their campsites on Minnesota's Red Lake reservation, into Montana's Glacier National Park and to Arizona's dramatic Canyon de Chelly.

Well known in his lifetime, Reed is now forgotten by all but connoisseurs of Western imagery. That is likely to change with "Alone With the Past: The Life and Photographic Art of Roland W. Reed," a handsome new book from Minnesota's Afton Press.

Most of its 400-plus photos come from original negatives that Twin Cities gallery owners Leon and Wes Kramer and their late father, Paul, acquired from Reed's descendants. The Reed family also sold the Kramers a huge cache of the photographer's letters, notes and other memorabilia.

That was the trove into which author Ernest Lawrence plunged to reconstruct Reed's life and work.

His 'long deferred campaign'

After working on railroads in Canada, unsuccessfully prospecting for gold in Alaska and working his way across the Western states as a sketch artist, Reed established successful photography studios in Ortonville and Hibbing, Minn.

It was not until 1907, when he was 43, that he finally gave in to his childhood dream and embarked on a "long-deferred campaign" to document the lives and ways of the Indians.

Many of his photos were used by St. Paul railroad developer James J. Hill and his son Louis to promote tourism along their Great Northern Railroad route, while others served as illustrations for the romantic Western novels popular at the time.

Inevitably, Reed's photos are compared to those of his contemporary Edward Curtis, another Wisconsin native who devoted his life to documenting all the "vanishing" native tribes of North America. Where Reed focused on fewer than a dozen tribes and self-funded his enterprise, Curtis took 40,000 photos of 80 tribes with support from financier J. Pierpont Morgan. His magisterial ethnographic study, "The North American Indian," was published in 20 volumes and included some 2,200 photos.

Stylistically, the Indian photos of Reed and Curtis are similar, though there is often a stagey quality to Reed's images, especially those he hand-colored for railway advertisements.

By the early 1900s, most Indians were confined to reservations and their traditional ways were fading into memory. Reed often hired Indians to pose for him in traditional costumes and had them re-create activities that were once common -- hauling water from a stream, spearing fish, calling moose, collecting and boiling maple sap in spring, hunting caribou in winter.

Pictures of young men posing on cliffs or gazing at the horizon with hands to brow are less persuasive, especially when the actors are decked in full-feathered headdresses they would have been unlikely to wear in such circumstances.

Amateur actors, patient coach

A patient man, Reed sometimes spent days coaching his amateur actors on where to go and how to look "natural." One of his favorite images was "The Trail Makers" (1912), which shows a line of Piegan (once known as Blackfeet) ambling on horseback along a ridge, dragging their camp gear.

"They did the best they could, but it was two days before they forgot me and really looked as if they were making a trail," he said in a 1916 interview. "I bet they rode by my camera 100 times before I snapped the shutter."

Purists criticize such practices for failing to capture the "real" life of the native people, but even the staged images provide an intriguing glimpse of what might have been. They also are pretty amazing given the cumbersome photo equipment of the time and the Indians' already compromised culture. Some of Reed's most engaging images are the "extra" shots of Indians chatting by their tepees, roaming through the mountains or simply fording a stream. Many of the unspoiled landscapes are spectacular and his portraits can be deeply affecting.

Reed's peripatetic career took him to San Diego, where he won a gold medal in a 1915-16 exposition and, according to a letter reprinted here, intimidated Curtis into backing out of the event. It's unclear whether the two ever met, but they were obviously canny competitors. During the 1920s and '30s Reed bounced around the country, dividing his time between a photo shop in Red Wing, a working studio in Denver and a vacation spot in Southern California.

He died in Colorado Springs after an improbable accident: He slipped on a banana peel, fractured some vertebrae, developed a spinal-cord inflammation and officially died of double pneumonia. He's buried there in an unmarked grave facing Cheyenne Mountain.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

  • related content

  • Library to showcase Curtis photos

    Friday October 19, 2012

    An exhibit showcasing the work of Edward Curtis, who photographed more than 80 American Indian tribes, will be on view at the Minneapolis Central Library.

  • ALONE WITH THE PAST: THE LIFE AND PHOTOGRAPHIC ART OF ROLAND W. REED

    What: Biography by Ernest Lawrence, with more than 400 Reed photos of American Indians.

    Publisher: Afton Press, 248 pages, 400 photos, $45.

    Web: www.aftonpress.com.

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