When Brian M. Christopher and his family moved to Camas in 2005, he was surprised by the number of Native American names that mark Northwest geography. Yet, he said, you really had to search to find the layers of history beyond the names.
That was the curious spark that resulted in Indian Country: Modern Images of an Ancient People,” a photography exhibit opening June 6 at the Second Story Gallery in Camas.
A photojournalist with 30 years of experience, Christopher categorizes himself as a documentarian. His fascination with native culture began as a child, recalling south Florida’s Mic-cosukee and Seminole tribes. “Even as a kid, I understood that they were surrounded by people who don’t understand them, yet they were just so strong.”
So it’s no wonder that he found inspiration in Edward Curtis, a 20th-century photographer and ethnologist who took more than 40,000 photographs of Native American tribes.
Christopher spent the past two years visiting tribe members across Washington and Oregon. He took photographs of people at a fishing camp near the Bonneville Dam, the Lelooska Cultural Center in Ariel, even traveling to the Totem Heritage Center, in Ketchikan, Alaska. It was in these traditional scenes that Christopher would discover elements of modern life. “In longhouse of Lelooska, you’ll see an exit sign. I’m not re-creating what was 100 years ago. This is what it is now,” he said.
“They’re strong, but they’re quiet and they’re surviving. They’re not just enduring, they are striving. It’s a quiet strength that I’ve seen over and over again, in all the tribes, recognized or not,” Christopher said.
He went back and forth on how to display his photographs, in color or black-and-white. “It just wasn’t working,” he said.
Seeking inspiration, Christopher saw an original Curtis photograph known as goldtones at a Portland gallery. “They’re so rich. (The photo) is printed on glass and they use gold dust to make the actual images.” Christopher found copies of Curtis’ photographs online, and thanks to Photoshop, applied the exact rich gold tone to his own photographs. “It’s sort of a nod to (Curtis), but it’s also more appropriate to the feeling of the photographs and the subject matter, I’m trying to be as respectful as possible of the people I photograph.”
Putting together the photo collection for the gallery placed Christopher’s documentation in another context. “You want to document that moment in time, but you also want it to be composed so it transcends and stands on its own as something else. It does transcend into art, as well.”
Thirty-four photographs will be featured in the exhibit, alongside a display of ephemera showcasing how native culture has been generalized and stereotypically portrayed in the past 100 years. Christopher will continue his work to document modern Native Americans as a documentary. He said he hopes visitors will take away a new sense of awareness from the exhibit.
“There was this sense, with the painters of the 1830s, (that) we have to capture (Native Americans) before they died off. Then it was the photographers saying, ‘We have to get these pictures before they’re extinct.’ But (the tribes are) not vanishing, they’re surviving. I’m next in a long line of photographers and artists; I hope to show they’re here to stay.”
“Indian Country: Modern Images of an Ancient People” opens with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m. June 6 in the Second Story Gallery of the Camas Public Library, 625 N.E. Fourth Ave., Camas. It runs through June 27. Call 360-834-4692 or visit secondstorygallery.org. You can also follow Christopher’s work on his blog, http://chriscomms.com.
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