'Alone with the Past': Book shows life and photographic art of Roland W. Reed
More than a century ago, the Bemidji Daily Pioneer reported the sale of R.W. Reed's Splendid Business to two other photographers in town. In 1907, it also was reported that although Reed "will continue to make his headquarters in Bemidji," he would fulfill his dream of living among the people of the lands to capture an era before it disappeared.
Reed visited Cass and Leech lakes, Upper and Lower Red Lake and the Rainy Lake system to find sites he wanted to include in his first foray, his book, "The Photographic Art Studies of the American Indian."
That was in 1907 and it has taken more than 100 years for an author to put together a book that includes almost all of Reed's pictures, personal observations and explanations of how and why he took the time to get just the right photo and also his commercial photography for the Great Northern Railroad, National Geographic and the Smithsonian.
In the introduction of "Alone with the Past: The Life and Photographic Art of Roland W. Reed," to be released this spring by the Afton Historical Society Press, author Ernest R. Lawrence wrote about the time he spent in researching and compiling the materials for this extraordinary tome about a man who was one of a group of photographers called the "Pictorialists."
In the introduction, Lawrence told what these men wanted to bring to their art, "the look and feel of Impressionism, the major artistic movement of that time."
They all experimented with light, focus, perspective, tint and other ways of maneuvering the final image, as explained by Lawrence, and they also wanted to make their photos "artistically enchanting." What an strange idea; "enchanting," for almost all photos at that time were similar in composition: father, mother, children and perhaps some extended family seated and looking straight into the camera.
A contemporary of Reed at that time was Edward Curtis who was proclaimed to be the best-known Pictorialist. Curtis was encouraged by such notables as Theodore Roosevelt, lauded by Smithsonian's Institute Bureau of American Ethnology and with J. Pierpont Morgan's significant financial support.
Reed never received the recognition for his work that he deserved.
Reed worked as a solitary man with his own meager resources. In fact, he received no backing and many of his pictures were not attributed to him and his portfolio is smaller than Curtis' - who took more than 2,200 pictures in his career and produced 22 volumes of his work, "The North American Indian."
In contrast, Reed would say that if he got a dozen good pictures a year that was a good year's worth of work because he had to work around and with the natural stoicism and reticence of the race.
In response to a question from "The Minneapolis Journal" in a letter dated in 1923, Reed referred to his "patience, persistence and subtlety" that he was noted for in his dealings with various tribes and how that paid off with the cooperation of his selected participants.
"In 1907, I locked up my studio, ordered plenty of photographic material and other supplies and started on my long deffered campaign in portraying the North American Indian," wrote Reed in his journal.
Reed decided to start his pictorial history of a people quickly being vanquished with the Ojibwe in the Red Lake area.
As written by Reed, "My first visit was a short lived one. I was told by old "King Bird" the head of a large village at the east end of the lake to get out at once and not come back."
Later in the entry, Reed wrote, "I hired one of his boys with an old buggy to hawel (haul) me and my camera and supplies out of King Bird's camp. I went deeper and just before dark pulled up in front of the Cross Lake Indian School at Ponema. There I found an old shack that I moved into."
Reed went on to say that the Indians there were curious but did not welcome him so he kept a low profile and patiently waited for a time when they would accept his presence.
As it happened, one day a couple of young girls came to Reed and asked if he would take a picture of their sick little brother which he did, and then Reed left to return to Bemidji.
Several months later, he returned to the shack and the father of the boy came to ask about the picture. Reed gave him the picture and the father asked him how much it would cost to have this picture of his child. Reed asked how the boy was doing and the father said that his son had died.
Reed gifted the father with the picture and they shook hands. From that point on, Reed was welcome to any part of Cross Lake Point.
This story is just one of many in the book about how Reed was able to gain the trust of the Anishinnabe with the help of interpreter John C. Morrison of Red Lake and guide Omar Gravelle of Bemidji. Even King Bird eventually allowed Reed to take pictures at his camp.
The second chapter of the book is titled The People of the Woodlands; the third, The People of the Plains; the fourth, The People of the Southwest ; and the fifth explores Reed's later life and work. Each chapter contains many fine black and white, sepia and occasional color pictures (some painted by Reed himself) of cultures of native people in their natural habitat, capturing both candid and posed tableaux.
Reed felt so passionately about the end of the life of the American Indian as they knew and enjoyed it that he wanted to record that era before it disappeared from the continental United States.
At the beginning of each chapter, readers will see and experience life among the Ojibwe and feel the pathos of blanket-clothed Everywind as she stood on the shores of Red Lake.
The people of the plains (Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Flatheads and Piegen) welcomed Reed during his six years of posing and clicking. Their chapter opens with three eagle-feathered men with their spears at the ready, standing on an outcropping of rocks. Waiting for whom, for what?
Another chapter opens with The Pottery Maker engrossed at his craft welcoming the viewer to the Navajo and Hopi Indians, peoples of the southwest. Reed's work and writing are candid and do not mitigate the facts nor fail to expose them; a feat for a non-Indian observer.
This work, as compiled by Lawrence, is best summarized by a quote by W. B. Laughead, in "The Minnesotan" of December 1916:
"Roland Reed is a poet by birth, and his medium of expression is the camera. He has given the best years of his life to the pursuit of an ideal, to picture the Indian as he had not been shown before, in his racial integrity as the aboriginal American."
The 400 page book with hundreds of pictures may be ordered at aftonpress.com or Afton Historical Society Press, P.O. Box 100, Afton, MN 55001. Afton Press books are also available through Amazon.com.