The Photography of Frank A. Rinehart

In a time of oppression, one 19th century photographer portrayed the dignity and individuality of Native American tribes
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Mar 26, 2015 | By Austin Bryant

here’s the old adage that the eyes are the window to the soul — they capture a person’s soul and their triumph, pain, or sadness. Frank A. Rinehart’s photographs are more than 100 years old, but the story of their subjects is still not to be forgotten. Discrimination, forced removal from their homes, and the continuing westward expansion into their land are just some of the horrible facts associated with Native American history over the past two centuries. At the time, Rinehart’s portraits offered them a dignity hardly seen at the time — or, arguably now.

Three Fingers, Cheyennes tribe

Rinehart, a German-American photographer born in Illinois who later settled in Nebraska, was tasked with capturing Native Americans at the 1898 Indian Congress in Omaha. To that date, it was the largest gathering of American Indian tribes, with more than 500 members of 35 different tribes attending. The Apache chief Geronimo, who at the time was still a prisoner of war, was among the attendants.

This Congress was held in conjunction with the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, which in itself was a showcase of westward development. It’s ironic and unfortunate that while these respected Native American leaders gathered, an expo that celebrated the invasion of their lands was being held simultaneously. Rinehart was commissioned by the organizers to photograph the attendees, and it’s his work that is now widely acknowledged as one of the best documentations of Native American leaders in history.

Brushing Against and Little Squint Eyes, San Carlos Apaches

Rinehart did what most of his contemporaries never deemed necessary — he offered these leaders and tribe members a chance at displaying their dignity and individuality. Posed in a studio, Rinehart shot his subjects with an 8x10 glass-negative camera and a German lens. The broad range of tones indicates the platinum print format, which gives the greatest tonal range of any chemical development printing method.

Most 19th century photography of Native Americans had a detached feeling, with quick portraits taken outdoors to categorize and record tribe members. It’s widely accepted that the work done by Rinehart and his assistant Adolph Muhr had a significant effect on how Native Americans were portrayed in future decades, even as their land and rights further disappeared. Each photograph is accompanied by the subject’s name, further cementing their place in the collective memory of the American consciousness.

Afraid of Eagle, Sioux tribe

Rinehart and Muhr went on to travel Indian reservations after the Congress and Exposition, photographing countless other tribe members across the western United States. More than a century later, the current state of Native Americans and reservation life in this country is unfortunately both accepted and little-discussed. There are 2.4 million Native Americans in the U.S., making up 0.9% of the overall population. However, according to the 2000 census, they have incomes that are less than half of the general U.S. population, with a consistently higher poverty rate than other races. Alcohol abuse and drug use also runs rampant on reservations, with American Indian men having the highest death rate in the U.S.

Here's to hoping that Rinehart’s stunning portraits continue to remind modern viewers of these undeniable facts and to encourage education on the subject, whether it’s through collective storytelling or the eyes of the subjects. [H]

In Summer, Kiowa tribe

Spies on the Enemy, Crow tribe

Austin Bryant is a style and culture writer from Boston, MA. 
He's passionate about photography, his next favorite beer, and Nicholas Cage's hair. 
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Images © Boston Public Library