Diné photographer Will Wilson’s visit to campus this academic year was noted in Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism. The publication, in existence for more than 40 years, is an important voice in the media arts and includes in-depth articles and features as well as reviews. Wilson’s work addresses issues of genocide, sovereignty, resistance, identity and the continued colonization of Native Americans.
“A selection of digital prints from Will Wilson’s ongoing project Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX) recently filled the Davis Gallery at Hobart and William Smith Colleges,” wrote Alexander Brier Marr for Afterimage. “Known for his uncanny vision of environmental apocalypse in his series Auto Immune Response (2005- ongoing), Wilson’s turn to studio portraiture marks a career development.”
“Wilson’s digital prints record an exchange between the photographer and the people he meets through residencies and workshops. The prints capture what the artist describes as the ‘many layers of the intimate’ that accrue in the process of making a portrait,” he says.
The full article follows.
Afterimage 41.4 Exhibition Review
WILL WILSON: TOWARD A CRITICAL INDIGENOUS PHOTOGRAPHIC EXCHANGE
Davis Gallery, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Geneva, New York
October 4- November 1, 2013
Alexander Brier Marr
A selection of digital prints from Will Wilson’s ongoing project Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX) recently filled the Davis Gallery at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Known for his uncanny vision of environmental apocalypse in his series Auto Immune Response (2005- ongoing), Wilson’s turn to studio portraiture marks a career development. More broadly, by highlighting the collaboration between photographer and subject required to produce a portrait, CIPX critically advances Native American photography. Using a 140-year-old Gasc & Charconnet lens, an Eastman View No. 2 camera, and the wet-plate collodion process, Wilson (Dine, or Navajo) photographs strangers and friends. After exposing, developing, and fixing a plate, Wilson gives the tintype to the sitter. Trading the photograph itself for permission to use a digital image scanned from it, the artist folds a nineteenth-century technique into current imaging practices.
Wilson’s digital prints record an exchange between the photographer and the people he meets through residencies and workshops. The prints capture what the artist describes as the “many layers of the intimate” that accrue in the process of making a portrait.1 More than expressing an interpersonal encounter, though, Wilson’s prints intervene in historical representations of Native Americans. In works such as his portrait of John Gritts, Wilson evokes the texture of historic photographic practices. High tonal contrast, lifting of emulsion, and rich detail denote the collodion process. A participant in Wilson’s residency at the Denver Art Museum, Gritts has worked for over forty years to promote American Indian education. In addition to educators, Wilson photographs leaders of tribal government, Native artists and dancers, curators of Native art, museum visitors, students and, periodically, himself.
As with almost all of the sitters involved with CIPX, John Gritts faces the camera directly. Like others who pose with significant objects, Gritts displays a charcoal drawing of his great-great- grandmother Dockie Livers, a Cherokee woman who lived through the Trail of Tears. Proudly holding the image, Gritts carries forward a family lineage that survived forced removal from Georgia. Compounding such eighteenth- and nineteenth-century experiences of geographical exile, many critics contend settler representations of Native peoples repeat this sense of dislocation in the visual field. The work of photographers such as Edward Curtis tends to remove Native peoples from American modernity. Employing a wet-plate process differently, Wilson’s photographs bring the agency and experiences of sitters into the frame.
When discussing CIPX, Wilson often mentions Curtis’s legacy. The American photographer famously crisscrossed the United States from 1907 to 1930, photographing people from over eighty groups west of the Mississippi for his twenty-volume book and folio series The North American Indian, making some of the most haunting images of Native America in the process. Curtis exposed forty thousand negatives, all the while removing traces of himself- and the world of industrial modernity- from his carefully composed images. In its historic process and frequent depiction of Native people, Wilson’s CIPX parallels Curtis’s lifework. The scale of CIPX, too, may come to match Curtis’s project. Since beginning CIPX in August 2012, Wilson has created over seven hundred images- an impressive number, though still shy of Curtis’s average rate of 1,700 negatives per year.
But if Curtis used glass-plate photography to construct a cultural mythology about Native America, to invent a picture of “Indianness,” Wilson engages the process to different ends. Wilson revives Curtis’s project only to supplant settler ways of seeing with a contemporary vision of Native America created from a Native perspective. Wilson is not the first photographer of Native heritage to quote Curtis. Marcus Amerman restaged some of Curtis’s most iconic photographs, replacing the woven basket in Curtis’s Before the White Man Came-Palm Canon (1924) with an Igloo brand cooler in his After the White Man Came (2001). Amerman comically reveals the truth behind Curtis’s constructed image: that native peoples have engaged with industrial modernity in the same ways as other Americans, despite Curtis’s belief that “authentic” Native cultures lives without the contaminating traces of settler populations.
If Amerman’s playful subversion maintains focus on Curtis, then Wilson’s attention to photography as a collaborative process helps us to recognize the historical agency of Curtis’s subjects. CIPX thus contributes to a recent shift in discourses of Native photography. Many recent studies indicate that historic photographs produced with anthropological goals carry radically different meanings for the living descendants of the people photographed. And we now apprehend that Native peoples participated in photographic projects with savvy about photography. These lessons indicate not the “truth” of photography- an essentially modernist concern with media specificity-but the ways photographic practices shape human relations. As he swaps tintypes for image rights, then, Wilson invites us to consider how photography enables exchange.
ALEXANDER BRIER MARR is a doctoral candidate in the Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester.
NOTE 1. Will Wilson, interview by author, email, November 4, 2013.