Gertrude Käsebier’s Camera-Box Heart

Feb 26, 2019 8:18PM

Gertrude Käsebier’s Fifth Avenue studio near 30th Street, New York City, April 1898, courtesy National Museum of American History

Dear ——

These people are my dear friends, some more than others, but all revealed to me an essence of their character and individuality.

One of my studio neighbors told me, “If you have had those Indians there once, they will spend the greater part of their time with you,” Well I should be glad to have it then! And to serve them tea and hot frankfuters and invite them to pose for me… for three weeks!

If thought them gorgeous and sad instead of noble and savage then be it said; I married for legs and got legs; My photography studio gave me walking space.

The family doctor told me I didn’t have a heart, only a camera-box.

Gertrude Käsebier, (Self-Portrait), “Portrait of a Photographer,” c. 1899 (manipulated self-portrait)

I do not recall that I have ever ignored the claims of the nomadic button and the ceaseless call for sympathy, and the greatest demand on time and patience. My children, and their children, have been my closest thought, but from the first days of dawning individuality, I have longed unceasingly to make pictures of people… to make likenesses that are biographies, to bring out in each photograph the essential temperament that is called, soul, humanity.

You can not read faces, the joy and sorrow in them, unless you have suffered and enjoyed; we do not see far beyond our own development, and my development came through much suffering, much disappointment and much renunciation. I learned to know the world because of what the world has exacted of me.

Gertrude Käsebier, “Chief Flying Hawk,” 1898, photograph

My Lakota Sioux friends were confined to “reservations” following the American Indian wars ­— those who had not died in combat or genocide. On the reservation they are forbidden to observe their customs and religion. The are required to wear American clothing and learn English and Christianity. A very small number are permitted to leave to participate in Buffalo Bills Wild West Shows which tour the country and Europe. Dressed in their native costumes, they perform wildly popular recreations of battles in which many of their own family members died.

My friend and their employer, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody said, "Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.”

Anyhow, I saw them marching down Fifth Avenue from my studio one day in April 1898, and reached out for the honor of photographing them. They arrived at the following Sunday morning at 8 o’clock and commenced with friendships which lasted decades.

—Gertrude K.

Example of a Wild West Show performance, “Custer’s Last Stand” c. 1905 photographer unknown

See more of Käsebier’s portraits of her Lakota Sioux friends and read selections from her unpublished autobiography in the Machamux Gallery exhibition the Anguish of the American W̶i̶f̶e̶ West

(This is a work of historical fiction based on real events and words from Käsebier’s papers, interviews, and memoirs)