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Review

Framing the West: Race, Gender, and the Photographic Frontier in the Pacific Northwest

By Carol Williams

November 4, 2013

Review By Kim Greenwell

PHOTOGRAPHS OCCUPY a paradoxical place in our historical imagination. As Carol J. Williams notes in the introduction to Framing the West: Race, Gender, and the Photographic Frontier in the Pacific Northwest, contemporary historians have primarily employed photographs as illustrations “to embellish an unfurling historical narrative” (7). Supplements but rarely substitutes for linguistic sources, photographs retain a relatively secondary status within conventional historiography. Yet, whether on their own or as illustrations, photographs wield a formidable signifying power linked, but not reducible, to the captions and texts that often accompany and enframe them. It is a power that we ignore at our peril and that we can best understand by examining photography’s complex dynamics of production, circulation, and interpretation. This is the historical task Williams undertakes with sensitivity, skill, and nuance in Framing the West. 

Offering a unique twist on the ail-too-familiar and often romanticized imagery of North America’s northwestern “frontier,” Williams examines how photography constituted its own form of “frontier” in and through which “the West” was both constructed and contested as an imaginative and material space in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Far from a “benign tool of observation” (4), the camera was an instrument inextricably embedded in the cross-cutting imperatives and ideologies of empire and nation-building projects. Williams deftly compares the way in which codes and conventions in survey, promotional, studio, and ethnographic photographs produced a particular narrative of settlement – “progress” – and the Euro-American encounter with Native Americans. 

What makes Williams’s analysis so compelling is her attention to the multivocality of this narrative and her care not to reduce all to the monolithic operation of a singular colonial “gaze.” Government agents, missionaries, anthropologists, commercial photographers, and indigenous men and women were all actively, if asymmetrically, involved in the production and consumption of photographic images as well as the ongoing process of constructing their meaning. Ultimately, Williams acknowledges that photography “served the goals, interests, and aspirations of those … who held power” in the colonial context of the Pacific Northwest (31), but she attends carefully to the diverse individuals and groups who competed for this power. The resulting analysis avoids constructing strawmen and offers a truly multidimensional picture of photographic practice at a particular time and place. Discussion of the conflicting agendas of missionaries and anthropologists, for example, sheds light on the seemingly paradoxical representations of Native Americans as both successfully assimilating and tragically “vanishing” in the face of Euro-American expansion. Similarly, Williams notes the individual stamp of commercial photographers, whose portfolios comprise so much of the photographic archive, while continually locating their influence and intentions within a power-laden field shaped not only by hierarchies of race but also by those of gender and class. Throughout, she emphasizes that photography was never merely a reflective expression of colonial relations but, rather, a constitutive medium through which the aspirations and anxieties characterizing such relations were mediated. 

It is Williams’s attention to the complex intersections of race, gender, and class shaping the photographic frontier that allows her to reread photographs against convention, unsettling assumptions regarding Native American women’s reasons for religious conversion, disrupting narrowly mas-culinist narratives of settlement, and perhaps most important, recognizing indigenous peoples as active subjects, not passive objects, in photographic encounters. In offering such a rereading, Williams precisely demonstrates her point that the meaning of photographs is best understood as an ongoing and contested process rather than as a fixed or finished product. This is not to suggest a process in which “anything goes” – far from it. Indeed, the irony Williams uncovers is that it was precisely the coding of certain visual conventions as representing Euro-American progress, respectability, and entitlement that made them such potent symbolic resources for appropriation and redeployment by groups and individuals marginalized by their race, gender, and/or class. Williams balances the important recognition of the existence of such strategies of resistance and appropriation with an understanding that their success was by no means guaranteed, and with an examination of the socio-historical conditions within which they variably played out. 

It is the book’s final chapter, which examines indigenous uses of photography within both historical and contemporary contexts, that perhaps provides Williams’s most unique contribution to the scholarship on colonial photography. That Native Americans not only appeared in photographs but also participated, with varying degrees of agency and empowerment, in their production and consumption is a dimension of the photographic frontier too easily and frequently obscured from view. By examining the culturally specific and often innovative uses and interpretations of photography by different indigenous groups and individuals over time, Williams begins filling in this “side” of the picture and pointing the way for future research. 

As implied by the active verb of the book’s title, framing the West is a dynamic process in which photographs have played, and continue to play, a pivotal role. It is also a process in which contemporary analysts are inevitably imbricated when they re-present and reread historical photographs. Williams’s own arguments and analyses are thus part of the very processes she examines; her book reframes the West by denaturalizing and disrupting the assumptions embedded in its conventional framings. The point is not to proclaim a final or definitive interpretation of photographic images but, rather, to recognize, as Williams does so effectively, their place in ongoing efforts to picture the past and to imagine possible futures.