Photographic History Collection: Gertrude Käsebier Collection

Photographic History Collection: Gertrude Käsebier Collection

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The Gertrude Käsebier Collection of American Indian portraits in the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History consists of 112 platinum and gum-bichromate prints. The photographic prints are important visual records documenting Sioux Indian tribesmen, women, and children, in studio or non-Indian settings. Contrary to popular and sometimes staged late-19th-century imagery of American Indians in full ceremonial clothing and accessories, Käsebier captured on film the poignant expressions and personality of the Indians that reflected her personal experience of the true, “raw,” and “authentic” Native American. The photographs in the Collection are rare glimpses of Indians in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show; they exhibit Käsebier's renowned artistic, sensitive, and captivating style of pictoralism. The collection was donated to the Museum by Käsebier’s granddaughter Mina Turner, in March 1969.
As a pioneering woman and artist, Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934) quickly developed an affinity for articulating her perceptions about the world through photography after studying painting at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in 1889. She began her artistic career late in life, at the age of thirty-seven, after her three children, Frederick, Gertrude Jr., and Hermine, had reached adolescence. Her talent as a photographer was celebrated internationally, and she became active in the exclusive, emerging, male-dominated photographic world as a founding member of both the Photo Secession group and the Pictorial Photographers of America.
Käsebier opened her own professional portrait studio in 1897 on New York’s Fifth Avenue, less than a decade after completing her courses at Pratt. Exhibiting her work with the Photo-Secessionists-- a group of highly regarded art photographers led by Alfred Stieglitz dedicated to producing photography as an equal to the traditional fine arts. This contributed to her rapid and widespread popularity. In high admiration of Käsebier’s portrait photography, Stieglitz commissioned her to photograph himself, his mother, and his wife. He also featured her work in the premiere issue of Camera Work, his noted photographic magazine. And in 1899, Stieglitz declared Käsebier as “beyond dispute, the leading portrait photographer in the country.”
Käsebier drew upon her knowledge of painting to achieve two necessary goals for her portraits: (1) to exhibit personality-- “to make likenesses that are biographies, to bring out in each photograph the essential personality” and (2) to compose pictures clearly and simply. “One of the most difficult things to learn in painting is what to leave out. How to keep things simple. The same applies to photography. The value of composition cannot be over-estimated: upon it depends the harmony and the sentiment.” In applying this methodology to her photography, Käsebier stamped each image she captured with her personal touch and artistic signature.
Gertrude Käsebier’s childhood memories of Eureka Gulch, Colorado, at the age of eight, included fond memories of relationships with the Sioux Indians and their children who were friendly toward her and her family. Taking portraits of the Sioux Indians was personally rewarding for Käsebier, who also contributed some of her portraits to the popular Everybody’s Magazine in 1901. According to her granddaughter, Mina Turner, Käsebier held a deep respect for the Sioux: “She felt they were the only truly honest people she knew.” Gertrude’s correspondence with these individuals through letters, drawings, and the photographs she took of them when they visited New York, testify to this special and valued relationship.
Käsebier’s Native American portraits can be divided into two groups: Sioux Indians participating in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which traveled throughout the United States from the 1890s to 1915, and portraits of Zitkala Sa (also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin), a writer, teacher, violinist, and voice of Indian rights. According to Smithsonian curator Michelle Delaney, “Gertrude Käsebier’s collection of Native American portraits is a poignant testimony to her independent spirit and her modern awarness of the possibilities of fine art photography.”
Object Name
Gertrude Käsebier Collection
date made
Kasebier, Gertrude
ID Number
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Work and Industry: Photographic History
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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