87: Steve Hoelscher’s Picturing Indians

Steve Hoelscher’s Picturing Indians: Photographic Encounters and Tourist Fantasies in H.H. Bennett’s Wisconsin Dells argues that Bennett’s photography turned the Ho-Chunk people of the Wisconsin Dells into objects of the “camera’s colonizing gaze,” but that the Ho-Chunk also subverted Bennett’s exploitation of them.  Bennett’s photographs can thus be read as negotiations of power, where visual images both represent and shape the material world.

Photographs of Native Americans exploded at the turn of the last century due to the rise of commercial photography, mass tourism, and the final conquest and colonization of Native Americans.  While the most famous photographer of Native Americans was Edward Curtis, who wanted to record a vanishing way of life, H.H. Bennett had the far less noble goal of profiting by selling images of Ho-Chunk people to white tourists visiting the Wisconsin Dells.  Yet while Bennett worked to stage photos that communicated white nostalgia for a vanishing way of life, his Ho-Chunk models actively worked to resist becoming tourist objects: they wore certain items, posed in certain ways, and used the money Bennett gave them for their own economic and cultural survival.  And in real life, the Ho-Chunk have managed not just to survive but to retain and buy back their homelands in a very real repudiation of American cultural and political imperialism.

Throughout, Hoelscher works from a wide range of primary sources, including five years of interactions with Ho-Chunk people and close connections with Tom Jones, a contemporary Ho-Chunk photographer.  He is careful to contextualize Bennett’s photography in the cultural, political, and economic milieu in which it was created, and to balance Ho-Chunk and white perspectives.  The result is a profoundly interconnected relationship between Native and white cultures that uses Bennett’s tourist photos as a nodal point.

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