Monday 7 August 2017

Picture Post #27 An Icon on the ‘Verge’ of American History

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen 

A native American family taking a ride in a car. The picture was 
apparently taken in 1916 in the American Pacific Northwest

There's a piquant quality about the image. For the photographer and the publisher of the time, were the passengers meant to be ridiculous? A mocking look at native peoples in the White Man's world? Yet even if so they surely do not know that. For the passengers of that day, they are very modern, very grand.

The picture shows that realities fuse together in ramifications of accidental experiences. Notably, the image contains the awareness that symbols deeply embedded in societies take on different senses given different motivations and perspectives.

We now know how Native Americans, in general, fared with modernity: the car is a symbol of their fate and oppression. An image such as this accumulates meaning by virtue of some of its intrinsic symbolic values, which are nonetheless unusual in the face of deep-rooted events – events that allow a symbol to become an icon. 

There cannot be anything strange to see a Native American family driving around in an automobile. Yet this occasion, strange indeed might be the Indians pictured in the limousine. The first possibility shades into a reality where everything becomes like a dream and realisation is always immediate, no matter how many complex things are combined. The second bears the idea that realisation will always be something postponed to the future, and that in this process elements reappear as odd, as clashing symbols.  

The difference in the language is subtle. This is the delicacy on which an icon can be raised.


Keith said...

By most official accounts, Native Americans are the poorest major group in the United States. So, seeing this (ostensible!) family in a high-end, expensive car strikes an incongruous note at best. I wonder whose car that might actually be; and who those people might actually be. I assume the image is staged for the photo shoot — especially given the 1916 presence of ceremonial feathered headdress, which would be a tad inconvenient while tootling around on a road trip in an open-air convertible. Besides, contrary to the stereotyping by earlier Wild West movies, not all Native American tribal chiefs engaged in the custom of wearing headdresses. The image seems in line with the road shows of roughly that time, with led Native Americans traveling the country to ‘reenact’ doctored, misleadingly lionized moments in nineteenth-century history. Might this, in its then-turn-of-the-century way, and minus the casualties, be the Cherokee ‘Trail of Tears’ redux? Certainly, the gesture of Native Americans seated in a spiffy car does nothing to undo their proud population’s historically sordid treatment, caught in the devastating vortex of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act some eight decades before this almost-theatrical photo was taken.

docmartincohen said...

Interesting that you make that 'Trail of Tears' link too, Keith. That's what the photo reminded me of, having researched the forced relocations of the native peoples for a book. Indeed, zoom in on the car and the faces look far from relaxed, far from triumphant, but rather stressed and sad. And yet... clearly some Indians were co-opted to the White Man's world and rewarded for their 'co-operation'. Could this car be one such group?

Keith said...

Yes, Martin, coincidentally, the very first thing I did upon going to the Picture Post the other day was to rummage through a draw for my magnifying glass so that I might peer more closely at the faces. I did notice, as you point out, their melancholy look; it was rather striking, especially in the unanimity of their expressions. All in all, hard to miss. However, what initially prompted me to magnify the faces was to confirm that the people in the car were really Native Americans — that the passengers weren’t whites dressed, in some flimflam, to look the part as props for the camera. For the most part, that disconsolate look among the Native American population hasn’t changed, or even faded, since this photo was taken, a reflection of their enduringly harsh conditions.

Tessa den Uyl said...

A long time ago I remember having seen a documentary about native Americans living along a river and there was this old vehicle they truly worshipped, like a divine symbol. Their interpretations were so rich and diverse from a white man's education that it made me understand how flexible the mind and body can approach objects. This flexibility of interpretation kind of showed how certain people do not succeed against existence but with it. The picture, to me, seems to express a growing into the world, not a being thrown, and the latter is a white man's perception.

docmartincohen said...

It would be nice to think so! But the picture remains enigmatic, a mystery..

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

A confusing photo. One thing seems sure: the family and the car are far apart. Perhaps the photographer's success lies in recognising this 'incongruous' situation.

Unknown said...

Believe it or not that father at the wheel IS the owner of that car. I saw this photo in a Western magazine years ago and the next issue a Native American woman wrote the editor confirming it was her great-great grandfather's car and he was very proud in owning it. To presume its a gag photo and was merely composed to sell postcards is fantastically bigoted and prejudiced.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Thank you M., this expresses how we easily mislead ourselves! And how this is exploited... a good coming together of circumstances to reflect upon.

docmartincohen said...

No one here making those simplistic assumptions, M Scuba! Your extra detail is most welcome, but even with it, as I wrote on the 11 August, "the picture remains enigmatic, a mystery.."

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