At the turn of the twentieth century, numerous photographers recorded the traditional Native American culture that was, sadly, changing dramatically. One of these was Roland Reed.
Roland Reed was an artist and photographer who was among a group referred to as Pictorialists. With a strong focus on Native American subjects, he was influenced by the Impressionist Art Movement of the late 1800s and sought to create photographic art that emphasized lighting and focus. He also sought to recapture Native culture as it had been, as opposed to how it was – recreating Native American life in what were better times for the people.
The results were stunning portraits of Native American men and women wearing Pendleton blankets, going about their daily life, and depicting a way of life that was, essentially, disappearing.
Reed was born in Wisconsin in 1864. He developed an affinity with Native Americans early in his life, having associations with neighboring American Indians while he was growing up. He also had a strong wanderlust and thirst for adventure. At the age of 18, he went to Minnesota to work at a sawmill and later worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway. It was here he first encountered Plains Indians.
He travelled widely from 1885-1890, tracking the Mississippi to Memphis and then through Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico and Montana. From 1890 he began sketching and creating watercolor paintings of the landscape and Piegan and Blackfoot Indians.
He commenced a role as apprentice to a photographer named Daniel Dutro in 1893, soon becoming his business partner. He photographed the Klondike Gold Rush as well as creating portraits of American Indians.
In 1899, Reed opened his own studio in Minnesota and regularly travelled to the Ojibwe Reservations to photograph the people there. In 1907 he closed his studio and moved to live close by the Ojibwe Red Lake Reservation, photographing the North American Indians full-time for the next two years.
Reed returned to Montana in 1909, opening another studio near Glacier National Park. He sold native pottery, rugs, baskets, and photos, as well as photographing the Plains Indians of the region (Blackfeet, Piegan, Cheyenne, Flathead, and Blood Nations).
In 1913, Reed spent several months capturing images of the Hopi and Navajo in Arizona, particularly in Canyon de Chelly.
He continued moving around every few years, offering commercial and studio photography services as well as selling his Native American images. In the early 1930s, he started working on a book of his photos, with the working title “Reed’s Photographic Art Studies of the North American Indian”.
Sadly, Roland Reed died suddenly in 1934 when he suffered a fatal heart attack while visiting friends in Colorado.
What is Pictorialism?
By 1900, most Native Americans in the USA were living on reservations. Their traditional way of life had been permanently altered, and Reed wanted to document their vanishing traditions, in a similar way that Edward S. Curtis did at the same time. This led to the Pictorialist movement. While this movement has not been without some controversy, the intent behind it was positive.
By recreating scenes from what was, to a large extent, an imagined past, Reed and other Pictorialists used the science and art of photography to record lost American Indian lifestyles by crafting idyllic, staged scenes. These included portraits as well as images of people riding, hunting, gathering, and embracing the majestic landscape.
Reed documented tribal nations from the Western Plains and Mountains to the Eastern Woodlands. Not all his stylized compositions were culturally accurate, yet the visual outcome of these photographs is magnificent.
Reed’s work is not as well known as that of other photographers and much of it is misattributed today. He self-funded throughout his life and did not want his photos to be used commercially without his oversight. He allowed National Geographic Magazine to license 40 of his images in 1915, but only 8 of these were published between 1916 and 1988.
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