Framework

Capturing the world through photography, video and multimedia

Leo Gagnon, master Haida carver and mentor to many community youth, in front of his house, with stripped cedar bark used for weaving. Old Masset, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada, June 2008.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Tiffany Vanderhoop, Haida textile artist, of Masset BC, and Aquinnah, Massachusetts. Tiffany's great-great grandfather was photographed by Edward Curtis. Tow Hill, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada, June, 2008.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Margaret Egutak, who is skilled at needlework and sewing with furs and cloth, and made the parka and moccasins she is wearing, was born on the land in an igloo, on the east side of Banks Island near Sachs Harbour in 1917. Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada, September, 2009.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Jeffrey Williams, lead actor in the Haida language play Sinxii' Gangu (Sounding Gambling Sticks), written by Jaalen and Gwaii Edenshaw with the guidance of Masset Haida language speakers, and produced by Jenny Nelson. Old Masset, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada, June, 2008.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Top Left: "Zoo York" graffiti on a shop closed for the season. Aklavik, Northwest Territories, Canada, March, 2008. Bottom Left: Warming tent at the Mad Trapper Winter Carnival. Aklavik, Northwest Territories, Canada, March, 2008. Top Right: "West Side" graffiti on an abandoned house. Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada, September, 2009. Bottom Right: Siren tower. Chinle, Navajo Nation, Arizona, USA, July, 2008.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Sergeant Major Lanny Asepermy, US Army (Retired), 1966-90, Comanche/Kiowa. Vietnam War, Korea and Bosnia. Most decorated Comanche Nation enlisted veteran with fifty awards including the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service (2), Army Commendation Medals (8) and the Combat Infantryman Badge. Apache, Oklahoma, USA, November, 2009.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Erika Stocker wearing her favourite rain boots, and her Haida Blanket, which she received in the traditional way, as a rite of passage on the eve of her graduation from Masset High School a few days before these photos were taken. Erika received a 2008 YVR (Vancouver Airport) Art Foundation Scholarship. Tow Hill, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada, June, 2008.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Jack Nokalak Akhiatak, Inuvialuit hunter and trapper. Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada, September, 2009.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Sean Brennan, Haida carver, atop logs he is carving to build a longhouse with his father-in-law, master Haida carver Cooper Wilson. Old Masset, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada, June, 2008.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Top Left: Easter Sunday at the Aklavik Anglican Church. Aklavik, Northwest Territories, Canada, March, 2008. Bottom: Grave markers of repatriated remains of 160 Haida ancestors, mostly children, from the Field Museum in Chicago. Children were stolen from their families and communities as part of the Christian Church-run Indian Residential School System, widely considered a form of cultural genocide. Old Masset Cemetery, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada, June, 2008. Top: Boarded-up Catholic Church. Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada, September, 2009. Bottom: Jesuit "Igloo" Church. Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada, September, 2009.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Filmmaker Jadal Q'egenga Andersen in her prom dress on Cemetery Beach the day after her graduation from Masset High School, where she was the top recipient of awards for academic achievement. Right: In her Haida button blanket, sewn by her aunties and mother for her high-school graduation. Her traditional Haida hat, given to her by her father, is woven from cedar bark. Masset, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada, June, 2008.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Ida Kuneyuna, skilled at needlework and sewing with furs and cloth and made the parkas and moccasins she is wearing, was born in an igloo, near Reed Island on the far side of Albert Sound, in 1937. Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada, September, 2009.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Ross Klengenberg, Inuvialuit sculptor, hunter and trapper with his new skidoo and wearing a parka that his mother made and that had been worn by his father before him. Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada, September, 2009.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Krista Nicole Hubbard, long-time Comanche Indian Veterans Association (CIVA) Princess. A Senior and Straight "A" student at Eisenhower High School in Lawton, Oklahoma. Lawton, Oklahoma, USA, November, 2009.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Top Left: Moose antlers, Gwich'in elder Olive Itis's house. Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, Canada, September, 2009. Bottom: Moose antlers, Gwich'in Elder Ruth Furlong's house. Aklavik, Northwest Territories, Canada, March, 2008. Top Right: Moose antlers, Gwich'in elder Bernice Francis's house, Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, Canada, September, 2009. Bottom Right: Muskox horns, Winnie Akhiatak's shed, Ulukhaktok (Inuvialuit), Northwest Territories, Canada, September, 2009.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Carmella Klengenberg wearing the parka made for her by her grandmother. Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada, September, 2009. Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada, September, 2009.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Petty Officer 1st Class Jimmy Caddo, US Navy (Retired), 1952-72, Comanche. Korean and Vietnam Wars. Awarded the Korean War, United Nations and Vietnam Service Medals, the Vietnam Gallantry Cross and the Combat Action Ribbon. Apache, Oklahoma, USA, November, 2009.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Gwaii Edenshaw, whose Haida name is Hluugiilgaa - sculptor and co-author, with his brother Jaalen, of the Haida language play Sinxii' Gangu (Sounding Gambling Sticks) with help from Masset Haida language speakers, and produced by his mother Jenny Nelson. Tow Hill, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada, June, 2008.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Raven Ann Potschka, Haida artist, activist and actor. Masset, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada, June, 2008.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Muskox hunting with brothers Earl and Jack Akhiatak and Jack's wife Irene. That day it took a while to find a small enough muskox. The big ones are tough to eat, and only interesting to trophy hunters from the south. The Inuvialuit use every part of the muskox for food and clothing and share generously with the whole community. All the cleaning and primary butchering is done in the field. Everything is tied into the skin in a big bundle and towed to the water's edge of the Beaufort Sea, and a five hour boat trip home to Ulukhaktok. Anyyaluk, Northwest Territories, Canada, September, 2009.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Corporal Edmond Mahseet, US Marine Corps, 1964-68, Comanche. Two tours in Vietnam and participated in 26 combat operations - fought and killed the enemy in hand to hand combat and was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon (2), the Vietnam Service Medal with 4 Battle Stars and the Presidential Unit Citation. Lawton, Oklahoma, USA, November, 2009.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

Specialist Eleanor (Atauvich) McDaniel, US Army, 1982-92, Comanche. Member of a 5-person Weapons/Ammo Disposal Team during Operations Desert Shield and Storm. First Comanche woman to serve in combat and was awarded the Southwest Asia Service Medal with 3 Battle Stars and the Kuwait Liberation Medal. Cache, Oklahoma, USA, November, 2009.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Rita Leistner

More galleries on Framework

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reFramed: In conversation with Rita Leistner

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reFramed: In conversation with Rita Leistner

“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. twitter@photospice

Rita Leistner is a politically and socially engaged lens-based artist whose concerned photography uses conceptual approaches to create photographs with a special relationship to current events and the human condition. Her work has been exhibited widely and published in many magazines. She is co-author of several books, including “Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq”; and “The Edward Curtis Project,” co-created with Métis/Dene playwright Marie Clements. Rita has a master’s degree in comparative literature from the University of Toronto, where she teaches a course on the history of photojournalism and documentary photography. She is working on her first short documentary film.

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Q: What is “The Edward Curtis Project”?

A: “The Edward Curtis Project” — which was commissioned for the 2010 Cultural Olympiad in Vancouver — is a unique collaboration between a photographer (me), a playwright (Marie), and numerous individuals from First Nation communities in Canada and the United States. Marie wanted to write a play about Edward Sheriff Curtis and “The North American Indian (1900-1930),” his epic and controversial photographic record of America’s First Peoples, and she wanted me to undertake a parallel photographic investigation. These photographs are the result.

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Q: How does your series of diptychs relate to Curtis’ documentation of Native Americans?

A: My portraits are a sideways glance through history from a present-day moment of time, just as Curtis’ photographs were in his time. Today, the increasing integration of modern and traditional dress shows that the long fight for survival is being won. It’s optimistic, because it’s about a historic period of revival and not its opposite. In Curtis’ pictures, regalia represented the past, and the whole concept was fatalistic. In these photographs, it’s the reverse and it looks forward.

It was a challenge to balance the seemingly opposite objectives of looking both to the past to illustrate how First Nations peoples were portrayed, with photographing them how they live today. Part of the richness of my process was addressing these inherent contradictions.

Early on I had abandoned the idea of photographing people in regalia à la Edward Curtis — Marie and I even brought bear skins and ill-fitting regalia to the Arctic, as a point of discussion, only to realize amidst roars of laughter that the concept wouldn’t work. This changed after we happened upon a theatrical performance in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. “Sinxii’ Gangu,” by Jaalen and Gwaii Edenshaw, is an original Haida language play.

An oasis in the Badlands circa. 1905. Oglala man (Red Hawk) on horse drinking at oasis. Edward S. Curtis / Library of Congress

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After seeing the play (twice), I photographed Jeffrey Williams — who played the lead — in his button blanket and other regalia lent him by his father. I posed Jeff in front of an old truck, wanting to include a symbol of the modern world, to distance the work from Curtis, whose portraits intentionally erased any signs of modernity. After the shoot, I drove Jeff home to change clothes before meeting his friends in town. He’s a typically fashion-conscious teen, and I commented on how cool he looked when he came out dressed “rapper-style.” It was his idea to take a second photograph in his “street clothes costume.” That night he posted both images on his Facebook page. And so began the diptych series that became a central motif of “The Edward Curtis Project” — a photographic exploration of past and present, traditional and modern, as presented by the subjects themselves.

Many people don’t know who Curtis is, but almost everyone will recognize his pictures — his exquisite sepia-toned large format portraits, ubiquitous as postcard images in souvenir shops across North America. What most people didn’t know was that the vast majority of Curtis’ portraits were staged using regalia that Curtis either borrowed from government warehouses and museums or that he had made. This is because the Canadian and American governments had outlawed anything having to do with Native American culture: the regalia, clothing, rituals, ceremonies and even languages.

The mealing trough – Hopi circa. 1906. Four young Hopi women grinding grain.
Edward S. Curtis / Library of Congress

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In some of Curtis’ pictures, the wigs and ill-fitting outfits are almost comic. These awkward moments are artifacts of oppression and violence. And so while Curtis’s photographs did a lot to preserve what is known about traditional regalia, they are also evidence of the campaign to destroy it. He thought he was photographing a “vanishing race,” but what he was photographing was actually a culture deep in a fight for survival. The new art of photography was the vehicle that made that visual record possible. One Comanche war veteran I spoke to told me he wouldn’t have any idea what Comanche warriors wore in the past if it wasn’t for 19th century paintings and Edward Curtis’ photographs.

We weren’t trying to redo Curtis, rather it was about talking to people about his work, and seeing what would come of carrying his pictures around with us as a way of addressing the legacy of colonial approaches to photographing Native American people.

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Q: How did you gain trust and access in a community that is sometimes – and rightly so – distrustful of white photographers?

A: Before the first trip Marie and I took to the Arctic — to her mother’s hometown of Aklavik in the Northwest Territories—a few people said I was crazy, that I’d never get access to communities, that aboriginal people hated white photographers. But this attitude in itself is part of the problem. People are people. I could never do any of the work I do without this fundamental belief in my heart. As with any serious documentary work, it takes time to meet people. I spent three weeks in Haida Gwaii before I took a single portrait. I just met people and talked to them. In the end I made hundreds of acquaintances and a good number of lasting friendships along the way.

A few months before the exhibition opened at the North Vancouver Museum, I phoned Earl Milford, who was then the president of the Navajo Veterans Assn., to tell him that a photograph of the Navajo soldiers’ memorial was going to be in the exhibition. “You’ve made an old man cry with happiness,” he said.

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Q: What made you group together images of houses and other buildings?

A: I grouped the churches with the cemetery to raise questions: The church-run residential school system was responsible for an enormous amount of sorrow and many still unhealed wounds among America’s First Nations people. Thousands in the U.S. and Canada died of illness or starvation. The graves in that set of images mark the returned remains of Haida children who had been stolen from their families and sent to residential school in the U.S. I want viewers to see the relationship between those who died, those responsible for their deaths and the continued presence of Christianity in some of these communities.

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Q: What are your thoughts about Curtis’ life work, “The North American Indian (1900–1930),” and his lack of interest in social activism?

A: Curtis’ dedication to what is still considered one of the most persistent long-form documentary endeavors of all time is epic. He spent  30 years and traveled to more than 80 communities — often on foot or by horse and carriage — carrying massive wooden cameras, wet plate glass negatives, a field darkroom, tents, food and supplies for a complement of assistants, translators and guides. He really has more in common with the contemporary filmmaker than the photojournalist. And he collected hundreds of hours of audio and interviews; his “In the Land of the Headhunters” is a landmark of documentary filmmaking. It’s not an exaggeration to compare his obsession to Ahab’s. By the time he died in 1952, Curtis’s project had faded out of fashion. He died alone and broke.

One of the main criticisms of Curtis is that documenting is not enough: Witnessing carries with it a responsibility to effect change or at least to try to effect change. Today photojournalism and documentary photography are almost synonymous with social activism, but that wasn’t the case in Curtis’ time. Very few photographers of his era were what we would call social activists. A few notable exceptions in America were Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis; and later the photographers of the depression-era Farm Securities Administration project, like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Curtis was old-fashioned. He’d been trained in the portrait studio traditions of the 19th century, and he carried this aesthetic throughout his career.

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Q: As a concerned photographer yourself, what do you hope this work will accomplish socially?

A: Timothy Nevaquaya is a Comanche artist and Methodist lay minister whose father, Doc Tate, is credited with the revival of the Native American flute in the 1970s. I met Timothy in Apache, Okla., in the fall of 2009. He compared the suppression of Native American culture to the flute: “This big misunderstanding of our way of life is just like the flute. Had the early settlers understood this marvelous thing, they would not have stopped its progression and there’s no telling what could have happened had the flute and its music not become lost.” I hope my photographs dispel some of this misunderstanding and help us to understand “this marvelous thing.”

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“The Edward Curtis Project” on stage and in the gallery, April 2013, presented by The Great Canadian Theatre Company and The National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Canada

“The Edward Curtis Project,” Talon Books, 2010, available on Amazon and from Talon Books

A recent photo essay and critique by Rita Leistner, “Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan” in The Literary Review of Canada

Expanded book version of “Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan” to be published by Intellect Books, UK, 2013

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barbara.davidson@latimes.com

twitter@photospice

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