First American Art Magazine No. 22, Spring 2019 - Page 48

THE ART OF IDENTITY The Image and the Image Maker By Matt Jarvis “T O BE, OR NOT TO BE?” is not the question; instead the question is: “What to be, or what not to be?” The question of who will determine who we are is not only a ques- tion of genetics but also of image and perception. This question is important to American Indian artists, because we are image-makers and shapers of perceptions—meaning that we have a privilege, responsibility, or power, which, hopefully, we wield for the betterment of our peoples. Photography came into wide- spread use during the 1840s, a period of American expansion across the Mississippi River. The Louisiana Purchase had been completed in 1803, securing land for a burgeoning nation that needed room to expand its popu- lation from the Atlantic seaboard. America’s problem was that the country those people wanted to move onto was already occupied and “underdeveloped.” In 1831, between the Louisiana Purchase and the spread of photog- raphy, another invention appeared in America—the railroad. The Great Lakes, Ohio River Basin, and the “Deep South” Gulf Coast became inhabitable, as a modern system of infrastructure moved west to catch up with agricultural frontiersmen. The constant westward movement of European American populations was forcing (through sheer numbers) more and more “Natives” to also move further west. This was the time of tales in which Indians committed savage barbarities against innocent, defenseless settlers, while some brave white man went and brought civilized militia or the army to the rescue. Writings and drawings of these stories created a “righteous” belief in the God-given right of the United States to remove or eradicate the Natives, so “civilized” people could inhabit these lands to the west. Others 1. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977), 57. 46 | WWW.FIRSTAMERICANARTMAGAZINE.COM painted and drew reproductions of the unspoiled, bountiful resources and beau- tiful landscapes that were just waiting for the “right” people to come and take possession of them. Until the widespread development of photography, only a trickle of rugged European-American individuals from the East trekked beyond the Mississippi River frontier. This is not to say photog- raphy caused the expansion of America; the doctrine of Manifest Destiny had already taken hold. But the spread of photography also led to a spread of Western sciences (geography, geology, and social sciences), through the distri- bution of reproducible images that came west with settlers during the second wave of American expansion. While European-Americans often had their portraits taken to share with others, they were also hungry to collect photographs of the exotic. Pseudoscientific studies of Africans, “Native” American Indians, and nude females and other erotica could become profitable endeavors for an industrious photographer. 1 Some say photography was a mixed bag for American Indians, because they were finally presented as human beings instead of savage beasts (the same people say photography increased awareness of the plight of Africans-Americans). Photography also helped create the concept that American