‘Collaborating with the past’:
Shane Balkowitsch at Pitt Rivers Museum
Blog by Louise Siddons
‘Collaborating with the past: Native American portraiture by Shane Balkowitsch’ is the first UK exhibition of the American ambrotypist’s work. The photographs have been selected from a recent acquisition by the Pitt Rivers Museum of forty original plates. Balkowitsch has set out to create one thousand portraits of Native American people using this historical wet plate photographic process, and to collaborate closely with each sitter on their photographs. Many of the participants are from the Lakota community of North Dakota, with whom Balkowitsch has a close connection. Another community that Balkowitsch has worked with closely is that of the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara) of North Dakota.
University of Southampton Professor Louise Siddons sat down with Dr. Christopher Morton, Deputy Director of the Pitt Rivers Museum and curator of the exhibition, to discuss the museum’s acquisition of Balkowitsch’s photographs. Unless otherwise noted, images are of photographs by Balkowitsch on display in ‘Collaborating with the past’.
Louise Siddons: Can you say more about how the collection came to the museum?
Christopher Morton: I'd been in correspondence with a mutual contact and learned that Shane was looking for institutions to archive his work with outside of the States. Part of his long-term goal is to get the thousand-plate project archived in different places to broaden the reach of the work. He didn't want it to just be a project which only had reference within North Dakota.
LS: What were your selection criteria for the forty ambrotypes that are now part of the museum’s collection?
CM: That's quite a good question. I wanted a good representation of his work, but I also wanted a good gender balance, age balance, and also sitters who reference their individual identity as much as their cultural identity. I didn't want to choose just sitters who had brought in a lot of their traditional regalia, I wanted sitters who also wanted to be represented as they dress every day.
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.
LS: You’ve written that what’s interesting about recent ethnographic photography is the way that Indigenous communities are using photography themselves.* The collaboration evident in this exhibition makes it obvious how people are engaging with the photographic tradition on their own terms.
It happens all the time, and our conversation is reminding me of the series of self-portraits by Khadija Saye, which are also on view in the museum. I think my first response was simply to them as aesthetic objects, very intimate and moving as personal explorations of her identity. But because she was also investigating herself in terms of her cultural identity, they almost become anthropological records. And so to me, Saye was directly in conversation with the history of ethnography and the ethnographic image—and throughout the self-portraits was quite playfully refusing legibility while also offering it.
And I admit that at first, even though Shane is making portraits of individuals with whom he has a relationship, my first reaction was ‘what a strange thing to do, to decide to take photos as a non-Native person of Native people, simply because they're Native’. But when I heard the conversations that he's been having, and that you’ve had with his sitters, it feels like in spite of himself, he's not being allowed to do that by the people he's working with. Which means that they frustrate the project of ethnography that is implicit in his practice.
CM: That was very eloquently put. And I agree with what you say about Khadija Saye. It was a lockdown acquisition, which I got through the V&A Purchase Grant Fund. The first impulse for collecting that was, you know, her tragic death and wanting to give it a bit of a legacy as I knew it had such connections with the museum, through the content of the imagery.
In anthropology we talk a lot about agency, denial of agency, and giving people the opportunity to exert agency. But what was going on with that agency in Shane’s collection? They knew what they were getting into, so I tried to dig into that with some of the interviews. And I found, for example, Dakota Goodhouse, allowing me to have these intellectual questions from my perspective as a white curator interested in history, representation, etcetera, but for himself saying, ‘that's all very well, but I'm not going to let you dictate my response’.
And so irrespective of the denial of agency that we as curators might see, looking at nineteenth-century portraits like the one reproduced in the text panel of the exhibition, Shane’s sitters recover agency in those historical images. They see the fact that their ancestors look proud and they take ownership over these great portraits showing honorable people in the face of terrible circumstances. And when we talk about decolonisation, that’s it, more than anything else.
*See, for example, the Introduction by Christopher Morton and Elizabeth Edwards
Photography, Anthropology and History: Expanding the Frame (London: Routledge, 2010; ebook 2016).
Christopher Morton (MA MSt DPhil, Oxf) is Deputy Director and Head of Curatorial, Research and Teaching at the Pitt Rivers Museum, as well as Associate Professor at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Linacre College. He trained in History at the University of East Anglia before undertaking MSt and DPhil studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology at St Antony’s College, Oxford, between 1995 and 2002, during which time he conducted long-term fieldwork in Botswana. He joined the Pitt Rivers Museum in 2002 as a curatorial assistant and in 2006 he was appointed Curator of Photograph and Manuscript Collections, a specialist curatorial role that he continues to undertake at the Museum. Dr Morton is also currently the Museum's digital lead, responsible for leading the Museum's digital transformation programme including new CMS-DAMS and Collections Online initiatives.
Louise Siddons (BA (Hons) Cornell, AM PhD, Stanford) is Professor of Visual Politics and Head of the Department of Art and Media Technology at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. Her publications include Good Pictures Are a Strong Weapon (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2024) and Centering Modernism (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018), as well as contributions to Art and Activism in the Twenty-First Century (Routledge, 2022), Authenticity in North America (Routledge, 2019), and Rethinking Regionalism (Colorado Springs FAC, 2021). She has also published in American Art, Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, Panorama, the British Art Journal, and African American Review.