Horace Poolaw is hardly a household name in photographic history, but he gets his much-delayed due in an expansive retrospective at the National Museum of the American Indian.
Poolaw (1904-1984) was a Kiowa who plied his trade in and around his hometown of Anadarko, Okla. While many of his images were taken at special ceremonial gatherings with the expected teepees and beaded regalia, Poolaw’s most revelatory images are those that documented the daily lives of Native Americans and the whites who were their neighbors.
As the exhibit sagely notes, “Outsiders in search of imaginied ‘authentic’ Indian culture rarely turned their cameras on the actual lives of Native people who were adapting American mass culture to their own.” The fact that Poolaw was an Indian documenting other Indians sets his work apart from the better-known Indian photography, which was mostly done by 19th century white documentarists.
Poolaw’s works are often intimate, such as the one of his young son wearing a tweed herringbone coat and a floppy hat, or the one of his brother-in-law, a tribal politician who pairs his suit with heavy working boots while standing in a field on the prairie.
Several images demonstrate how interrelated Indian and non-Indian lives were in Anadarko. Especially notable is a group photograph of the sisterhood at the Rainy Mountain Baptist Church, which includes a wide ethnic spectrum. The cross-pollination of cultures is embodied in an image of Jerry Poolaw, a son of the photographer, shown wearing both his Navy uniform and a headdress.
The museum’s uncrowded exhibit gives lots of breathing room for Poolaw’s large, black-and-white images, which were made from 4×5 and 5×7 negatives and were restored by students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Because professional-quality materials were expensive, the photographer planned and framed his images with care before tripping the shutter.
Some of his most moving photographs, sadly, are of funerals. Several images document the funeral of one of the photographer’s relatives, including Pascal Cleatus Poolaw Sr., a highly decorated veteran. But the most eloquent meditation in the exhibit is the image depicting several men straining to lay a coffin into a freshly dug grave. Moving in tandem under a grimly overcast sky and facing right to left in unison, the image has all the gravitas of two of those most American of artworks, Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware and Joe Rosenthal’s Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.
Through June 4 at the National Museum of the American Indian, 4th Street and Independence Avenue SW. Daily, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Due to a reporting error, this post originally stated that Poolaw’s photos were restored by students at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha. They were restored by students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.