…In some cases, the indigenous people were the commissioners of the photos; in others, they were props for a romanticized version of themselves sold to an audience nearly rabid for “exotic Indian” imagery.The Likeness House was, to the First Peoples of the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century, the photo studio — the place where they would go to get a likeness of themselves.
On a winter’s day in 1889, Tsimshian Chief Arthur Wellington Clah went to a photography studio in Victoria to have his portrait taken. “Rebekah ask if I going likeness house,” Chief Clah wrote in his diary, “So I go, to give myself likeness. Rebekah stand longside me.”
On the American side of the border there was an equal if not more intense preoccupation: Edward S. Curtis’s legacy was a monumental, heroic and theatrical record of the American Indian and their recollected and imagined way of life before the white man. From 1900 to 1914, his mastery of the grandest pictorial style and technique in his photogravures and silver and platinum prints was rivaled only by the most elegant prints of Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz. Between 1898 and 1928 he made over 40,000 negatives of more than 80 Indian tribes west of the Mississippi and in Alaska. Working in collaboration with many tribal members Curtis created an ethno-historical account combined with photographic notions of character portraiture, environmental portraiture and classical romanticism.
By 1900 he had articulated and began pursuing his life’s goal: to document, through photograph and written word, Indian traditions, habits, and life-styles west of the Mississippi River before contact with the white man completely destroyed them. Curtis undertook a series of exhibitions and articles to draw attention to his efforts, and he soon had the encouragement of Theodore Roosevelt and the financial support of J. Pierpont Morgan.