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On the frigid night of Jan. 24, 1865, the west wing of the Smithsonian Castle burned—and the stage was set for a pivotal moment in the history of American photography.

In the 1860s, the Smithsonian Institution was just coming into its own as a museum and an academic center, and one of its budding specialties was the documentation of Native American tribes and their members. Early in that effort, the Smithsonian had commissioned painted portraits of Indian delegations that visited Washington, but the 1865 fire destroyed most of that collection.

To replace it, a farsighted team—including Western explorer Ferdinand Hayden, British philanthropist and Indian aficionado William Henry Blackmore, and Smithsonian officials Joseph Henry and Spencer Baird—decided to build a new collection using a relatively new medium: photography. The team hired an obscure studio photographer named A. Zeno Shindler to honcho the project. From then on, whenever an Indian delegation came to Washington, Shindler took pictures of its members at a Pennsylvania Avenue studio. He also helped assemble a collection of Indian portraits that had been taken by other photographers in the 1850s.

The resulting collection was mounted in phases in the rebuilt Castle during the late 1860s—which means it was the first photographic exhibition ever to grace the walls of an American museum. The Shindler collection became the core of a 500,000-image ethnological archive at the Smithsonian, and copies of the photos were sent to academic institutions around the world.

The story of how the collection coalesced is told in a new book, Native American Photography at the Smithsonian: The Shindler Catalogue, by Paula Richardson Fleming, senior photography archivist at the Smithsonian’s National Anthropology Archives, housed in Suitland, Md. Fleming, a Northern Virginia native and Annandale resident, has been working with the collection for roughly three decades—arranging, describing, and doing the detective work required to clarify the historical context of each image.

The book includes reproductions and background information about roughly 300 photos—a number of them iconic, even though the collection as a whole and its organizer have faded into relative obscurity. (The Shindler collection was last exhibited almost 20 years ago.)

Fleming says most of the studio photographs treat the visiting Indian dignitaries, captured in ceremonial dress, precisely as any group of foreign diplomats would have been treated at the time: with distance, formality, and respect. Only later, in some subsequent pictures taken out West, did hints of dispossession and despair enter the frame.

Ironically, Shindler was trained as a painter—he later did significant work for the Smithsonian as a colorist of mounted specimens—and is not considered a top-flight photographer. Indeed, the images he was most often praised for were actually the collection’s earliest photographs—the ones he curated and in some cases reprinted, but didn’t take himself.

“He tried to make his images as unbiased as possible,” Fleming says. “They are best described as ‘efficient.’ But the subjects themselves are so photogenic that I could have taken good photographs of them, and I’m a rotten photographer.”

Naturally, viewers today can’t help but contrast the regal demeanor of many visiting delegates with the sad historical fate of those subjects and their tribes. For Fleming, the pathos is impossible to avoid. She points to a photograph of Scarlet Night, a 37-year-old in a heavy coat, bow tie, and slicked-back hair. “I can’t look at this and not think about the fact that he was murdered soon after this picture was taken,” she says. “You learn something like that, and you can’t divest yourself of it.” —Louis Jacobson