LS: Looking at the exhibition, I appreciated that variety.
CM: Along with the ambrotypes, Shane gave me a hard drive full of a huge amount of supporting imagery, taken on his phone or by other people who were around the studio at the time, which document their visits. I didn't have very much room to play with in the display case, so I decided to use this additional content as much as I could on the website, to create a sense of the occasion and the context for the sittings.
My overall curatorial intention was to emphasise their collaborative nature as much as possible because working in an anthropology museum right now, presenting this type of material, we run the risk of looking like we're re-presenting historically problematic modes of representation. Especially with this collection, I felt it was important to convey what my original interest in his photographs was, which was that there was an awful lot of co-production involved in the generation of these images and that the sitters were fully aware of the issues involved. The sitters for each portrait appreciate that context in the moment, but when you take their image out of that context and put it in an Oxford museum like the Pitt Rivers, you've got to do a lot of contextual work to reproduce that everyday context which they take for granted and which, if you look at the supporting images that Shane sent along with the ambrotypes, you can see.
LS: That’s exactly why I was curious about his efforts to get the collection into international venues, because there are additional layers of challenge that it presents to audiences here compared with audiences in North America. But even before the cultural differences, I’m interested in the questions raised by the medium. For me, as someone who studies photographic history and practice, an ambrotype as a historical object has a very different history than the history of anthropological photography. The scientific value of photography, in anthropology, largely lies in its reproducibility, so even in the nineteenth century we see photographers creating negatives and multiple prints. Ambrotypes, though, are unique objects, so they strike me as embodying a refusal of the multiplied scientific—or commercial—gaze that’s potentially quite subversive.
I don't mean to suggest that Shane or his sitters are necessarily thinking about those politics, but as someone sitting around thinking about these portraits after the fact, I find it quite interesting that there's a certain inaccessibility built into the objects’ singularity.
CM: I think that's an interesting point. I hadn't really thought about it in that way, partly because of the amount of usage he makes of them on social media platforms. And the amount of ‘likes’ and comments you get from Indigenous people that are in that network, saying things like ‘it was such a wonderful day at your studio’, and ‘thank you for all that you're doing for our people’, and all that sort of thing. The nostalgic quality of the image is completely transformed and reframed by the Indigenous commentary. And the great light bulb moment for me, thinking about how he works online, is that where we so often read nineteenth-century photographs of Native Americans as problematic salvage anthropology, constructing ideas about a ‘dying race’, many of Shane’s sitters are far more alive to descendant readings of those images which are honorific, focusing on their courage and dignity and other positive qualities.
LS: That’s interesting; I've done a bit of work on the American Indian Movement and their appropriation of 19th-century portraits of prisoners of war as activist images. They repurposed the images and sometimes transformed them into contemporary images through posterising, collage, and other medium-based interpretive moves, as well as by using them to add historical context to contemporary political struggles.
CM: Yes — Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie makes use of a lot of that type of imagery, for example.
LS: Absolutely — and has done so throughout her career, starting in the ‘70s.
CM: That's right. So it's been a fairly long history of that kind of engagement and yet white curators will still privilege their readings of those historical images.
LS: And I think audiences too.
CM: Absolutely. Somebody commented to me the other day that they felt a kind of temporal confusion when looking at the images. And I think that's absolutely right. It comes across in one or two of the quotes in the exhibition where the sitters say something like, ‘the original images which we’re referencing were taken at a time when they said we were about to die out and we're taking these images again, to show that we're still here, we certainly haven't died out’. So, there’s a kind of temporal collapse but also, at the same time, an expansion.
LS: I thought it was quite elegantly done in the display case, which starts out with photographs of people who are in very traditional regalia, and then — I have no idea how many visitors recognize Deb Haaland, but for me, I immediately thought oh, contemporary famous person! Which pushes against the nostalgic quality of the ambrotype medium as well as the formality of the poses. And then as the exhibition progresses, you get to people who are very obviously not wearing regalia, just wearing whatever they turned up to the studio in.
CM: Yes — it sets up little temporal traps, which draw you in, and you then release yourself from later.
LS: And I think it's as important to make the point that the regalia is also contemporary —the culture is a living culture.
CM: Yes, they're not dressing up. Those regalia are used in ceremonies.