Unreserved

Photo exhibit reveals different side to Indigenous life

An exhibition, currently at Washington DC’s Smithsonian, explores the work of a little-known Indigenous photographer and shows a different side of these iconic images. For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw focuses on five decades, starting in the late 1920’s, of the Kiowa man’s work.
In 1947, Robert “Corky” and Linda Poolaw (Kiowa/Delaware), dressed up and posed for the photo by their father, Horace. (Estate of Horace Poolaw)

Indigenous people may well be the most documented people on the planet.

From the earliest days of photography to film to advertisements, Indigenous imagery has been captured for more than 150 years. Largely these perspectives have been seen through the non-Indigenous lens for non-Indigenous audiences.

An exhibition, currently at Washington DC's Smithsonian, explores the work of a little-known Indigenous photographer and shows a different side of these iconic images.
The late Gus Palmer (left) side gunner, and Horace Poolaw, aerial photographer, both Kiowa, stand in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress, circa 1944. (Estate of Horace Poolaw)

For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw focuses on five decades, starting in the late 1920s, of the Kiowa man's work. Poolaw was born in the early part of the last century in Anadarko, Oklahoma.

"So many of our communities at that time were undergoing really dramatic change and his photos capture that," said Jesse Wente, Unreserved's culture columnist, who took in the show while in the US capitol for a symposium. "It's a viewpoint very much from inside the community. You can really tell that Poolaw was from this place; knew these people. A lot of the people in the photographs are family members or friends."

Adapting and changing

He said while Poolaw largely shot portraits, they were not the posed, stoic style made famous by his contemporaries like Edward S. Curtis, an American photographer whose work focused on the American West and on Native American peoples during the 1900's.

He said Curtis's images helped form the popular image of Indigenous people: stoic, always in ceremonial attire, a part of the past. But he said, Poolaw's photos are an alternate version of these events and of that time.

"When you see the photos it's impossible not to immediately consider them as a counter narrative to the photography of Edward Curtis."

Wente said some of the most grabbing photos are of young Kiowa men and women, dressed in contemporary clothes and hairstyles of the day; men with pomade slicked hair and women in flapper dresses.

"This is a community adapting and surviving, of a contemporary people, not a people of the past."

For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw is is on now at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC until June 4th.

now