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ART / CATHY CURTIS : Unnatural History : 'Partial Recall' Encourages Viewers to Question What They See

January 25, 1994|CATHY CURTIS

Nothing is black and white about photographs except the effect of light on the film emulsion.

Although filled with concrete details, photographs may exude intangible, between-the-lines emotions. They may show real people in settings or activities that are a figment of the photographer's imagination. The passage of time may expose their lies or deepen their mysteries--or both.

At the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery through Feb. 12, "Partial Recall: Photographs of Native North Americans"--organized by the Tyler Galleries at the Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia--consists mostly of historical photographs of Native Americans drawn from various museums and archives.

Art critic Lucy Lippard, co-curator with Tyler Gallery director Don Desmett, sets the tone of the show with an essay about the mixture of nostalgia (for ethical values no longer in vogue), historical vagueness and awareness of exploitation that colors the ways we perceive these photographs.

Rather than condemning them all as lies, however, Lippard points out that the sitters do communicate on a human level, if we allow ourselves "a physical, tangible, sensuous experience of the image."

There is also another key issue. By today's standards, most photographers of Native Americans were exploitative or at least irritatingly paternalistic. But for better or worse, their photographs are among the few images we have of a vanished past, of civilizations extinguished forever.

By mingling the fragmentary information written on the photographs with historical facts and latter-day commentaries by Native American writers and artists, the show offers an unpredictable range of viewpoints. But most important are the images themselves. Viewed from a vantage of 50 to 100 years, they are remarkable in terms of what they include as well as what they leave out.

Even in photographs obviously meant to celebrate assimilation into white society, facial expressions can reveal a psychic loss. At Battleford Industrial School in Saskatchewan, Native Americans were separated from their families, forbidden to speak their own languages, or even to wear their hair in the long tribal fashion.

Posing in letter sweaters and knee pants, members of the school's 1897 football team seem to have unusually hardened or pensive expressions for boys of their age. (On the other hand, if you didn't know about their backgrounds, you might think they were simply thinking about Saturday's game. Such is the intrinsically elusive, malleable quality of photographic imagery.)

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Many images in the show are studio shots. Some show Native Americans posed against a plain backdrop, giving the effect of captured "savages" displayed to amuse civilized gawkers. (Ishi, the last survivor of the Yahi tribe of Northern California, is seen bare-chested, with gleaming, uplifted eyes in a photo from about 1913, rather like a reformed sinner or prisoner in a silent movie.)

Other subjects were shot in outdoor settings altered to suit contemporary notions of picturesqueness. "Before and after" versions show that the Ute gathering in "The Messenger: Severo on Horseback Telling Buckskin Charlie" was originally photographed in a nondescript suburban area. Paint turned the background into a snowy mountain wilderness, and a fire and a ceramic pot were gratuitously added to the foreground.

Even the anthropological straightforwardness of "A Dying Mojave" by photographer Ben Wittick appears suspect (as does the breezy comment on the label).

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Were the people gathered around the skeletal man in a loincloth really smiling? Were the pot and bowl part of the last rites, or a photographer's window dressing? And what does it mean, exactly, to say that the Mojaves' religious beliefs "centered on the acquisition of power by dreams"?

Some Native Americans were shown doing incongruous, "all-American" things (like the Ute Girl Scouts who hold absurdly long twigs with wienies attached, as if they needed campfire training) while other sitters were pressed into service as passive symbols of assimilation (a smiling elderly woman in native dress getting a beauty-shop manicure).

Not all the photographers were white. Frank Matsura, a Japanese immigrant, shot such images as "Two Girls on Couch," from about 1910. The two young Native American women in long white dresses reclining on a Victorian chaise longue, presumably in Matsura's studio. One seems lost in thought while the other exudes calm strength and rests a supportive hand on her friend's shoulder.

Matsura may have requested these poses, of course, yet something about the women seems truly intimate and genuine. Did his own heritage allow him to be more attuned than most to the tact and trust required to reveal a private state of mind?

Commentator Rayna Green writes: "Generations survived after them because they were tough, flexible, sound. Matsura saw it."

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