Roland Reed (1864 - 1934):
Noted Indian photographer Roland Reed, born during the Civil War, grew up seeing America’s indigenous peoples turned from hunters and gatherers into ragged, destitute squatters, knowing he could do nothing to prevent this. What he could and did do was to record the lives of a few tribes before all trace of how they had been vanished. Given his working methods and limited resources, the final count of his Indian photographs was not large, but many of his pieces are today considered works of art.
Roland was the fourth of six siblings and the son of a Wisconsin Fox River valley farmer of Scots’ descent who grew up on land that bordered an Ojibway trail. Seeing the Ojibway passing excited his child’s imagination as did the stories people told of Indian bravery and intrepidness. He wanted to be like them. So much so that when he was seventeen, he stole a canoe and set out on a grand adventure, stalking the forest, thieving, and paddling the Fox River until circumstances forced him to find work. This was the first of his wanderings which took him up into Canada and through the tribal lands of the western states. He worked occasionally, sometimes doing crayon portraits and teaching open air sketching, never stopping for long.
Until in 1893 he reached Havre, Montana, where photographer Daniel Dutro was looking for an apprentice.
Roland decided to learn photography in a period of change. The Kodak hand-held camera had made it possible for almost anyone to take pictures. Anyone could do what only professional photographers had once done—record reality. Now, increasingly, photographers began separating themselves from the amateurs by using the camera and their dark room techniques creatively to produce art, something they called Pictorialism. To that end their pictures tended to be a bit out of focus, aimed for a romantic aura, and utilized settings, costumes, and posed subjects.
After mastering Pictorialist methods, working several years as a partner in Dutro’s studio, and spending another short, unrewarding stint in Alaska, Roland returned to Minnesota in 1899. He’d decided on his life’s work and was determined to begin among the people who had first inspired him—the Ojibway. Four years on, however, his idea of photographing the Ojibway was as far from realization as it would’ve been if he’d stayed in Montana.
Finally, after what was left of his immediate family relocated to California, he locked up his studio in Ortonville, moved into a small cabin on the reservation, and waited. It took an additional year and a dollop of good luck, but Ojibways finally began working cooperatively with him to create a Pictorialist record of their traditional lifestyle. This was the beginning of a productive period, and, as his photographs began to circulate, recognition came his way. In 1908 he had his first exhibition in Minneapolis under the auspices of the Eastman Kodak Company.
He’d made a start. Now it was time to move on to record the people and artifacts of other tribes. He returned to Montana. In 1909 he set up a studio in Kalispell and for the next six years worked with the Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Flatheads, Piegans and Bloods in Canada and Montana, photographing them not as they were but in settings and costumes that reflected how they had been.
For the first time in his life, too, he became part of an art community which included Danish artist Johannes Anderson and German impressionist Julius Seyler. He came to know Western artist Charles Russell and his wife and became acquainted with a number of influential people who visited Kalispell coming and going from Glacier.
Local writers, too, were part of his new circle of friends and customers. Helen Fitzgerald Sanders used his photographs in The White Quiver, 1913, and A History of Montana, 1913. James Willard Schultz published 24 Reed photos in his Blackfeet Tales of Glacier National Park, 1916. One-third of the 40 photographs Agnes C. Laut used in her Enchanted Trails of Glacier Park, 1926, were Reed’s, although unattributed. Worse, they brought him no remuneration.
For all of his successes, Reed remained relatively unknown. He meant to change that, but first he needed to diversify. In 1913, he journeyed to the Southwest to photograph the Navajo and the Hopi. Then he began putting together collections for two large California exhibitions—one in San Diego, the other in San Francisco. For that work, he needed an assistant and sought out Lou Adelaide Bigelow.
Lulu, as she was called, was more than a capable photographer, eventually accompanying Roland to California to help with preparation of life-sized Indian portraits for the Panama Pacific International Exposition (the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco) and to witness the high point of his career—a gold medal for his exhibit at San Diego’s Panama-California Exhibition. At the conclusion of the latter exhibition, 50 of Roland’s framed photographs went to San Diego’s Southwest Museum.
During the exhibitions, Roland opened a studio in San Diego where he successfully sold copies of his exhibited work as well as Indian artifacts brought from Montana and the Southwest, but this did not go as well as he had hoped. He had difficulties with pricing and supply on the artifacts and grew impatient with the darkroom work. In October 1915, he sold out to Lou Bigelow, returned to Kalispell where he closed that studio, and moved home to Ortonville, MN to live with his sister and her husband, who had returned from California.
While he owned several more photographic studios, Roland’s work photographing Indians essentially ended with the California exhibitions. In 1934, every inch a mature, distinguished and accomplished man, he started out for Ocean Beach, California, where he planned to spend the winter. Stopping to visit in Manitou, Colorado, he injured his back. He died there of complications.
Schultz, James Willard. Blackfeet Tales of Glacier National Park. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916. E 99 .S54 S28 1916
Lawrence, Ernest R. Alone with the Past: The Life and Photographic Art of Roland W. Reed. Afton, MN: Afton Press, 2012. TR 140.4365 .L39 2012
For additional publications about Native American Indians in Photography, please search the McCracken Research Library’s Catalog at: http://wyld.state.wy.us/bbhc/