Roland Reed

Roland Reed reproduced an epic portrait of the unconquered North American Indian that is at once severely beautiful and ethnologically important. It is a significant interpretation of Indian History as well as a major collection of photographic art.

Roland Reed began his life’s work shortly after the turn-of-the-century. It was his intention to publish a definitive photographic record of the North American Indian. Using a camera as big as an apple box that used heavy 11″ x 14″ glass plate negatives, he spent 25 years and a considerable fortune recording the images of the American Indian. He worked among the Woodland Indians (Ojibway), Plains Indians (Blackfeet, Cheyenne and Flathead) and the Southwest Indians (Navajo and Hopi). Reed had a sincere respect and affection for the Indian.

Most significantly, Reed insisted on achieving artistry as well as accuracy in his work–therein lies the greatness of his photographs. Carefully planned and perfectly executed, his pictures were not made in haste; several days or even weeks of patient preparation might precede a successful photograph. Consequently, his output was never voluminous. His first three years among the Indians produced scarcely a score of negatives, and in later years, a dozen superior photographs were considered a good year’s work. His photographs are a hauntingly accurate record of a past and glorious way of life.

Roland Reed was born in 1864 in the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin. His parents were farm people of a Scottish ancestry. He grew up in a log cabin near the old Indian trail that led from Lake Poygan to Fon du lac, and the hero of his boyhood days was an Indian named Thundercloud—the chief of the band of Menominies camped on the opposite side of the lake.

Reed’s hand-written notes (which have survived these many years packed with his glass-plate negatives) reveal that he remained keenly interested in Indians throughout his early life, and that at the age of 18 he headed west—where he first attempted to record the vanishing faces in crayons and pencil. It was the beginning of a lifelong odyssey that would see him journey back and forth across this continent—always in search of Indian subjects.

Gaining the Indian’s confidence must surely be one of Reed’s major accomplishments. His photographs show clearly how fully the Indians cooperated with him. In earlier days it was supposed that the camera might capture the spirit of the person photographed.

In a personal letter, Reed once explained something of how he obtained his pictures: “In approaching the Indian for the purpose of taking his picture, it was necessary to respect his stoicism and reticence which so often have been the despair of the amateur photographer. A friend once characterized my method of attack as indicative of Chinese patience, book-agent persistence and Arab subtlety. In going into a new tribe with photographic paraphernalia, although I hire ponies and guides, I never once suggest the object of my visit.

When the Indians, out of curiosity at last, inquire about my work, I reply casually, ‘Oh, when I’m at home I’m a picture making man.’ Perhaps within a few days an Indian will ask, “You say you are picture making man, could you make our pictures?” My reply is noncommittal–“I don’t know. Perhaps.” ‘Would you try?’ ‘Sometime, when I feel like making pictures.’ Further time elapses, apparently the picture making man has forgotten all about making pictures until an Indian friend reminds him of his promise. Then the time for the picture making has arrived.”

There is no doubt that Roland Reed was among the most talented of the Indian photographers, both from a technical and an artistic standpoint. Contemporary critics praise the composition and atmosphere of Reed’s photographs. This remarkable collection of photographs taken by Roland Reed in the early years of this century is more than a series of “interesting Indian pictures.” It is, in a sense an attempt to create a visual culture history of the American Indian. Read, employing a sensitivity and anthropologist might envy, succeeded in capturing Indian history and traditions.

Regrettably, Reed never accomplished the publication of his hoped for volume of Indian photographs, And until recently the collection had remained in the hands of relatives virtually unseen and unknown for more than half a century. The entire collection of 180 glass-plate negatives and all reproduction rights have been acquired from the heirs to the Reed estate.

The first series of photographs are now available as limited edition prints in 16 x 20, 24 x 30 and 30 x 40 inch formats. The total number of photographs made from each glass-plate will be 750. Each photograph will be numbered and will be accompanied by a Certificate of Authenticity stating the title and size of the piece, its number and the edition size.