“The Motliest-Looking Crowd That It Was Ever My Fortune To Encounter”: Photographs of Native North Americans in The Arctic Regions
Submitted by guest blogger, George Schwartz. He is a doctoral candidate in American & New England Studies at Boston University. For twelve years he was as an Assistant Curator in the Maritime Art and History and Exhibitions and Research departments at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, where he contributed to a pair of Polar art exhibitions. He is currently working on his dissertation entitled “Collecting and Arranging the Most Important Aids to a History of the Globe”: A Reconsideration of the Salem East India Marine Society in the Context of Antebellum American Museology.
An aspect of The Arctic Regions that has not received enough critical attention in the prior scholarly analyses of the volume is the twenty-five plates depicting native inhabitants from Greenland.1 Some photographs are quite shocking examples of an imperialist gaze common in the many travel volumes of the Orient during this time, such as the poor Inuit boy in Plate 120 who stares in fear at the camera (fig. 1).
Why has this aspect of Bradford’s book been overlooked? J.C.H. King and Henrietta Lidchi in the Department of Ethnography at The British Museum argue that while the list of atrocities committed by the United States government towards Native American tribes was mounting by 1869, this was not so much the case for native Greenlanders. “For Eskimoan peoples there were no equivalent cycles of violence and romanticism, no clash between the urban and frontier understanding of Arctic people. Instead, the Eskimo was usually a heroic figure, frequently a helper and provider of food, never a hostile [people]…In a very real sense native peoples in the Arctic remained noble savages in a way that American Indians did not. There was no comparable ‘fall from grace.’” 2 This view presents another dichotomy in a volume filled with dualities as many of Dunmore and Critcherson’s photographs and Bradford’s narrative text pertaining to native people in The Arctic Regions still treat them as a visual spectacle—and as a lower race—in concert with Victorian attitudes. (There is historical precedent for this depiction of Arctic natives, discussed in great detail by Russell A. Potter in his 2007 volume Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818-1885.)
Bradford’s interest in ethnography did not begin on the Panther expedition. On his earlier voyages to Labrador, he collected kayaks, canoes, fishing gear, and other Inuit artifacts at this time and on subsequent voyages, and created a studio display that one visitor noted as “one great cabinet of northern curiosities.”3 The following year, Bradford had William H. Pierce—another James Wallace Black studio photographer—take photographs of Inuit people. Potter notes that one photograph was not a fortunate snap shot but a carefully staged picture: “Bradford and Pierce had the Inuit erect a skin tupiq, heap up an array of sleds, kayaks, and other personal effects, then pose in front of it almost as though it were a theatrical backdrop.”4 This “truthful” image shows that Bradford worked with his photographers in constructing understanding of non-Western people.
Potter’s deduction is important to keep in mind when examining images of native inhabitants during this time. Due to the intricate setup, long exposure times, and slow film speed of photography in respect to the wet-plate process, human subjects would have to “buy in” or cooperate with the photographer. Pamela Stern, writing about the history of Canadian photography in respect to cultural sovereignty for the 1998 volume Imaging the Arctic, has found “no evidence that the Inuit made efforts to escape the camera’s lens.”5 Furthermore, “we must consider, too, that Inuit norms of polite behaviour may have deterred them from refusing even the most absurd requests made by powerful and economically important outsiders.”6 She contends, however, that the photographers showed little inclination as to how native subjects would use or interpret these images of themselves, their homes, and their territories.7
Bradford’s expedition was not the first to photograph in Greenland. Several expeditions and Danish officials took pictures in this region beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, and the oldest extant photographs were taken in 1854.8 In fact, Danish-Norwegian colonization in this area was well underway by the early eighteenth century. From that time period to about the 1840s, Europeans were primarily interested in exchanging goods and converting native inhabitants to Christianity.9 Kleivan Inge notes that this policy changed, however, by the mid-nineteenth century with “visions of a Greenlandic community that resembled European society.”10 A result of increased European presence was intermarriage, but at this time education was stressed, local councils were created, and small printing presses emerged. Local publications of Greenland legends were created at this time, which Inge notes “played an important role in forming a common Greenlandic identity” while also exposing Greenlanders to a myriad of illustrations that made them accustomed to “reading pictures.”11
Therefore, it was impossible to avoid encountering native people on the Panther expedition, but it was the manner of this encounter with the photographic lens and the written word that we now view as contentious. Many of the photographs bear the marks of nineteenth century racial classification. It is striking that the illustration page in the volume, one of the first pages in the book, has a small photograph tipped in on verso and recto of native individuals. The small bust length portrait of a man on the recto has a caption that reads “Head of an Esquimaux Man (fig. 2),” a bold statement of ethnographic classification.
When the Panther arrives in the Danish port town of Julianehaab, the narrative and imagery are primarily focused on the native inhabitants. The description of these individuals range from flattery to racial inferiority, and the photographs match this tone. During a welcoming banquet and dance, Bradford describes the women’s dress, colors of garments, and also their physical features in complimentary tones: “Many of the younger women were not only pretty in features, but were also finely formed, with delicately-proportioned hands and feet; and, as before said, they acquainted themselves well upon the floor, their particular garb offering no obstructions or waltzing. I have seen many ladies at home who do not equal them in lightness and grace.” (fig. 3)12 On the same page, however, is an image of an Inuit mother with baby on her back, with a caption below that reads: “The Ugliest Women We Found” (fig. 4). This misogynistic and racially tinged label has no bearing on the narrative—and possibly no bearing on Dunmore’s and Critcherson’s rationale for photographing this woman—and can only be classified as emblematic of the time.
Further evidence comes at the end of Bradford’s description of native rolling of a kayak. He notes: “This act, which seems almost incredible to those who have never seen it performed, is accomplished very rapidly, and may be witnessed at any Greenland port for the trifling compensation of a few bisquits, a little grog, or a handful of tobacco, articles of which the Esquimaux are specially fond.”13 On their way to visiting the ruins of Karkatok, they encounter a group of hunting kayaks. Bradford thinks they are playing a game at first, throwing spears at imaginary animals, and then notes “The wild attendants, shooting at the top of their voices, and flying wildly about, reminded me of descriptions of the savage Cossacks of the Don, or untamed Arabs of the Desert, in their feats of horsemanship, though the scenes were as dissimilar as the elements on which they sported.”14
In contrast, Bradford’s views of Europeans or individuals of mixed race are more flattering. On the entrance of a Danish ship into the port, Bradford describes the Danes in complimentary tones—“We found the more enlightened portion of the community busily engaged in the reception and discussion of the numerous and highly prized remembrances from their far off homes”—but is far from pleasant in his comments on the Inuit inhabitants—“The Greenlanders, whose lives are bounded by the bleak world they dwell in, were equally joyous, although the brig only brought to them a prospect of fresh articles for trade.”15 Finally, on returning inspector Peter Motzfeldt to his sub-station of Kraksimiut, Bradford describes his daughters’ physical characteristics: “while the rosy flush upon their cheeks indicated a semi-European origin. One of them, named Concordia, was far the fairest and handsomest specimen of her race that we met with on the coast, and, being modest as she was pretty, became a favourite with us all.”16
The final and most glaring duality involving native inhabitants is found in Bradford’s comparison of Europeans and Inuit that dominate the early and later portions of the volume. As the Panther ventures south on its return to Newfoundland, she stops at the town of Upernavik. The crew spends a week with Dr. Rudolph—a former surgeon in the Danish naval service who accepted a position in Greenland after his term was over—and his family. Bradford writes:
Dr. Rudolph received us with his wonted cordiality, and exhibited so sincere a desire for us to stay, that we remained with him a week, enjoying ourselves greatly, and doing something, I trust, to relieve the tedium which must sometimes prevail with him. This life, however, certainly has its charm, or such men as our host would not voluntarily accept it, after their term of service gives them the privilege of going home.”17
Bradford’s view of the native inhabitants of Upernavik, particularly Hans Heindrich, is quite different. Heindrich had served with Isaac Hayes aboard Elisha Kent Kane’s expedition in 1853, but “ran away from him in Smith’s Sound…and married a woman of the northern tribe.”18 Isaac Hayes employed Heindrich on his own expedition in 1860, but had difficulties with him. Bradford states:
Hans proved to be an excellent hunter, but was morose in temper, sulky and ungrateful, exhibiting the worst traits of Esquimaux character, although he had been converted and partially educated by the missionaries…He was brought down to Upernavik, where he has been living ever since, an unreliable and indolent fellow, at least, so I found him. His wife is but little better. The Danes would cheerfully pay for the deportation of the whole family, if they would consent to go. Hans must not be considered a fair specimen of the converted Greenlander; he is not put forward as an example of missionary work in this country. 19
The comparison between “cordial” Europeans and “disgruntled and backward” natives is striking, particularly the notion that Heindrich’s family is not “considered a fair specimen of the converted Greenlander.” In a fitting visual encapsulation of this dichotomy, images of the Rudolphs and the Heindrichs appear opposite each other on a two-page spread. Both photographs are composed in a similar fashion, and the expressions on all faces are rather stoic, but there are slight discrepancies. The Rudolphs all sit in front of their house, with an inviting open-shuttered window behind them (fig. 5a), while the Heindrichs pose in front of a less-noble looking dwelling—almost a barn—with the door firmly closed (fig. 5b). These backdrops accentuate the dichotomy in Bradford’s narrative and Dunmore and Critcherson’s photographs—a robust European home versus a dilapidated native abode. Finally, below the photograph of the Heindrichs is a small image of a boy (fig. 6) with the caption “An Esquimaux pet, a boy about eight years old.” In almost a foreshadowing to the work of photographer Lewis Hine, this image and caption further emphasize the imperialist gaze towards native Inuit seen throughout the volume.
1. Some of the earliest photographs of Greenlanders were taken by Isaac Hayes during hisvoyage to look for the famed “Open Polar Sea” in 1860, as he could not afford to hire a professional photographer. He took wet-collodian negatives. Douglas Walmsley and William Barr, “Early Photography of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland,” in Imaging the Arctic, eds. J.C.H. King and H. Lidchi (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998), 38.
2. J.C.H. King and H. Lidchi, “Introduction,” in Imaging the Arctic, eds. J.C.H. King and H. Lidchi (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998),
3. Richard Kugler, “William Bradford,” in William Bradford: Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas, ed. Richard Kugler (New Bedford, Mass and Seattle, Washington: New Bedford Whaling Museum, in Association with the University of Washington Press, 2003), 14, 20.
4. Russell A. Potter, Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818-1885, (Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 2007), 194.
5. Pamela Stern, “The History of Canadian Arctic Photography: Issues of Territorial and Cultural Sovereignty,” in Imaging the Arctic, eds. J.C.H. King and H. Lidchi (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998), 50.
7. Ibid. Today, the existence of these historic photographs, regardless of intent of the photographers or the images produced, “permits Arctic people to repossess their histories and reassert their sovereignty over their cultures.” Ibid, 51.
8. Kleivan Inge, “The Greenlandic Photographer John Møller,” in Imaging the Arctic, eds. J.C.H. King and H. Lidchi (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998), 107.
11. Ibid, 108.
12. William Bradford, The Arctic Regions: Illustrated with Photographs Taken on an Art Expedition to Greenland (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low and Searle, 1873), 18.
13. Ibid, 21.
14. Ibid, 22.
15. Ibid, 24.
16. Ibid, 26.
17. Ibid, 80.
18. Ibid, 81.