The photograph appears as dusty as the landscape in which it was taken. Tall men, some military, all members of the Peace Commission sent to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in 1868 to negotiate treaties with Plains Indians, stand on either side of a tiny Indian woman wrapped in a blanket at the center. The image is both hopeful and heartbreaking, a wrenching symbol of peace negotiations that attempted to correct the mistreatment and violence directed at the Plains Indians who were being squeezed out of their homes with nowhere to go–a symbol of a treaty that was signed but never realized.
The photograph is one of 65 extremely rare images that document a last look at the frontier. The exhibition Across the Indian Country: Photographs by Alexander Gardner, 1867-1868 opens July 25 and was curated by Jane L. Aspinwall, Associate Curator of Photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The exhibition includes photographs from two extraordinary bodies of work created by Gardner, depicting the transformation of the American West: Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, 1867 and Scenes in the Indian County, 1868
“Eight of the photographs are from the Nelson-Atkins collection; all the rest are on loan from various institutions,” said Aspinwall. “Many come from historical societies that rarely have exhibition space, so most of these photographs have never been seen by the public before; some even one of a kind. This exhibition is an opportunity for a rare look at a frontier that virtually vanished after these images were taken.”
Alexander Gardner emigrated from Scotland to the United States in 1856 and worked at the New York City studio of Mathew Brady, coming into contact with numerous politicians and military figures. After the outbreak of the Civil War, Brady photographed the conflicts, sending his team of photographers, including Gardner, into the field. Gardner left Brady’s studio in 1862 to open his own in Washington, D.C.; at this same time, he also became employed by General McClellan as official photographer of the Union Army’s U.S. Topographical Engineer Corps.
After the war, Gardner photographed many notables including President Lincoln, the Lincoln conspirators, and Indian delegations visiting Washington. In 1867, Gardner joined the survey team for what became the Kansas Pacific Railroad. The railroad was promoting plans for an extension of its route from Kansas to the Pacific Ocean. This proposed route, from Kansas through the mountains of Colorado and deserts of New Mexico, Arizona, and California, would serve to placate the Indians and provide access to the markets of the California. Gardner photographed the path of the proposed extension, emphasizing the ease of future railroad construction and the potential for economic development while including studies of the Indians in the region and settlements along the way. Gardner’s photographs represent the earliest systematic series of the Great Plains.
“Gardner’s photographs of the Western landscape are extraordinary,” said Aspinwall. “The survey photographs include some of the earliest images taken of the state of Kansas. They also provide a rare glimpse into the transformation of the American frontier through startling photographs of the landscape.”
The survey photographs make up about half of the exhibition; the other half includes images taken during treaty negotiations between the Plains Indians and the Indian Peace Commission at Fort Laramie, Wyoming in 1868. Gardner photographed many of the Sioux chiefs from the northern plains tribes including Crow, Arapaho, Oglala, Minneconjous, Brule and Cheyenne. The photographs are remarkable both for the variety of tribes represented and for the candid documentation of everyday Indian life, including Indian encampments, burial trees and peace proceedings. Although treaties between the U.S. government and the various Indian tribes were not unusual in the mid-1800s, the 1868 treaty was notable because it was the first time the U.S. government denounced the existence of individual Indian tribes and maintained that Indians would be treated as U.S. citizens, subject to the laws of the nation.
“These photographs are groundbreaking,” said Aspinwall. “Gardner captured images of Indian life that had rarely if ever, been photographed. Wrapped in blankets, carrying peace pipes, many of the Indian chiefs were truly interested in peace only to be met with empty promises. These images are poignant and wistful—documenting the rich culture of a rapidly marginalized Indian population.”
Across the Indian Country: Photographs by Alexander Gardner, 1867-1868 runs through Jan. 11, 2015, and complements a larger exhibition of Plains Indian masterworks from pre-contact to contemporary, titled The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, which opens at the Nelson-Atkins Sept. 19. That exhibition opened in April at museé du quai Branly in Paris and will travel to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York after it closes at the Nelson-Atkins Jan. 11, 2015. It is curated by Gaylord Torrence, one of the nation’s leading scholars of Plains Indian art and the Fred and Virginia Merrill Senior Curator of American Indian Art at the Nelson-Atkins.
“Visitors can expect a very rich Plains Indian experience, being able to see the astonishing photographs of Alexander Gardner and then viewing the art made by the tribes of the same region,” said Aspinwall.
A catalogue written by Aspinwall, Alexander Gardner: The Western Photographs 1867-1868, will be available at the museum store in conjunction with the exhibition.