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Famous Faces of the Frontier

Famous Faces of the Frontier
In the 80 years between the beginning of the Mexican War and the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, the American West was changing. Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits from the American West, 1845-1924, organized by the National Portrait Gallery, chronicles those changes through photographs of the men and women who transformed the region's nature and identity.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): When history is presented as a list of facts and dates, it can be kind of boring, even when documenting fascinating events. But when history is presented in a sequence of photo portraits, allowing us to look across time into the faces of the men and women who created those events, it becomes unforgettable. An exhibit from the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery on display at the San Diego History Center, gives us a look at more than 100 faces from the history of the American west. It's called “Faces of the Frontier,” and I’d like to welcome my guest, Frank Goodyear III, associate curator of photographs with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Frank, welcome to These Days.

FRANK GOODYEAR III (Associate Curator, National Portrait Gallery, The Smithsonian): Thank you, Maureen. It’s great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us, if you could, a little bit about the exhibit. Give us a general overview. Whose faces do we see?


GOODYEAR: The exhibition highlights 120 men and women who played a leading role in the transformative changes in the trans-Mississippian west between the period of the Mexican War in the 1840s and goes forward through 1924 which is the year in which the Indian Citizenship Act is passed. It’s a landmark piece of civil rights legislation for native peoples. And so visitors at the San Diego History Center will be able to see the men and women who arguably changed the face of the American west and in doing so, I think, changed America itself.

CAVANAUGH: Now I don’t know which is more fascinating in this exhibit, the faces of people whose names we know or the faces of people whose names we don’t know. Tell us a little bit of the faces that we would know.

GOODYEAR: It’s true that the exhibition includes a great number of figures who are iconic in our nation’s memory, people like Sitting Bull and Geronimo, Chief Joseph, three important Native American leaders. But the exhibition also suggests that this – the west is a crossroads for many different peoples and so we have American figures from the military like people like General George Armstrong Custer, from the world of science and exploration like John Wesley Powell or John Fremont, but also entertainers like Annie Oakley and William Cody, religious figures like Brigham Young or the famous Catholic leader Jean-Baptiste Lamay. And so visitors will come face to face with a number of people who are so important in our history but also new figures about whom less is known.

CAVANAUGH: And where did these photos come from? It must’ve been quite something to try – to get all of these photographs in one place.

GOODYEAR: Well, one of the joys of working at a place like the Smithsonian, our national museum that has more than 13 million historic photographs is that there are rich resources. And the Smithsonian feels a responsibility not only to represent every community in our museums and our programs in Washington but to be able to share these extraordinary national treasures with the country. And so this is exactly what we’ve done in bringing this exhibition to the San Diego History Center, is bring these very fragile, vintage photographs from the collection and to be able to share them with the community here. They are the real McCoy.


CAVANAUGH: Yeah, they certainly are. I’m wondering, tell us how – as I said in the opening, these faces tell us a story but how do they tell us the certain stories? How do these faces tell us, let’s say, the stories about the exploration of the American west?

GOODYEAR: Umm-hmm. You know, as you point out, you know, history is more than just a series of events and facts, but history is done by specific individuals. And so what this exhibition permits visitors to do is to better understand some of these personalities and something about the complexity of their characters. George Armstrong Custer, whose graduation photograph from West Point is in the exhibition, who, incidentally, finished 43rd out of a class of 43 at West Point and had a bit of behavior problems at the time, nevertheless rose with extraordin – speed through the military ranks, becoming, by the time the Civil War’s end, a leading military figure. His sort of engagement with native peoples in the west is a lot more complicated than historians or certainly the public has largely understood, and this exhibition, hopefully, will suggest some of his complexity.

CAVANAUGH: And how does California rate in this photo album? How do we explore California’s place in the west?

GOODYEAR: California’s an important place in the story. Obviously, during the Mexican War this becomes a battleground between Americans and Mexican military and we have a portrait of Andres Pico, the military commander of the California – Californio Mexican militia. Obviously through the gold rush and portraits of people like John Sutter on whose land gold was originally found. And the more than 300,000 people who moved into California in the decade following the discovery of gold, people like Levi Strauss, Domingo Ghirardelli, and my favorite, the Parisian dancer Lola Montenz (sic), whose erotic spider dance was extraordinarily popular among the gold camps in the 1850s.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve heard that name, Lola Montez, so much in reading about California history but to confront a photograph and, of course, she is beautiful. And to see all of the women involved in these photographs, that’s what I – when I heard “Faces of the Frontier,” I figured maybe there would be a couple of women. There are a lot of women’s photographs and their history included in this exhibit.

GOODYEAR: Yeah, there’s remarkable achievements by women. And some names, maybe, are not household names. Take, for instance, the Modoc woman named Winema, who learned English and was an important translator in northern California between her tribe, the Modoc tribe, and American authorities and who served as an important diplomat and forged a peace that hadn’t existed in that community in the past. Or people like, certainly here in San Diego, Helen Hunt Jackson, whose 1881 book, “A Century of Dishonor,” which was the first kind of frank critique of the historic mistreatment of Native Americans and her novel, “Ramona,” two years later, the first kind of novel, work of fiction, to humanize native peoples. And this, I think, suggests that, really, the west is more than just simply cowboys and Indians but that it is this kind of crossroads for this extraordinary diversity of peoples, each with their own backgrounds, each with their own kind of visions and hopes for the future.

CAVANAUGH: And there’s this extraordinary photograph of a woman with a tattoo on her chin.

GOODYEAR: Yeah, Olive Oatman, who was traveling as a 13-year-old with her family to California during the gold rush when her caravan was attacked by a group of Apache. Several members were killed and she was taken captive and lived among the Apache and then the Mojave for five years during which time, as was custom among many young Mojave women, she acquires this tattoo on her chin and it’s – when she was ultimately brought back east and photographed, this image was extraordinarily powerful for young people and others who were sort of struck by her experience living among the tribal peoples of the southwest.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Frank Goodyear III, who’s associate curator of photographs with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and we’re talking about the exhibit “Faces of the Frontier,” which is on display at the San Diego History Center. And there are icons of photography in this exhibit and one of the most famous is Edward S. Curtis. His works are still reproduced today, sold today. Tell us about him and his subjects.

GOODYEAR: Absolutely. When people think about western photography, they often think about landscape pictures. The famous works of Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson are very well known, very much anticipate the photography of a 20th century master like Ansel Adams. But it’s also true that there were photographers who took portraiture as their main subject and Edward Sheriff Curtis from Seattle spent more than 30 years of his life documenting the native peoples of North America with his camera. He collected, over this period, more than 40,000 historic images as well as audio recordings and he published the results in a 20-volume book with a forward by President Teddy Roosevelt, a project that had been financed by J.P. Morgan, and his images are extremely revealing about the native peoples at the turn of the 20th century, during this kind of transitional period as Americans became, and native groups, became more intertwined in this place, the west.

CAVANAUGH: And there’s a photograph of him, Edward Curtis, as he starts out on this journey of discovery. And it’s a wonderful photograph; he looks quite handsome. He looks almost as if he knows he’s going to be famous.

GOODYEAR: Yeah, it’s an early self-portrait. And so interesting how people present themselves through photographic portraiture. You know, he’s wearing this kind of very romantic sort of Indiana Jones like hat and he doesn’t wear a coat and tie like many artists of the day but, in fact, wears what is known as a roll neck sweater, a turtleneck, allying himself with the kind of outdoor laborers, miners, lumbermen who wore similar kind of garb. He looks straight out of central casting.

CAVANAUGH: He certainly does. Now, Frank, I understand that this exhibit is only going to – well, it’s here in San Diego but it’s only going to a couple of more places within the United States before it returns to the Smithsonian, and why is that?

GOODYEAR: The photographs themselves, when visitors come to the San Diego History Center, they’re seeing the actual photographs themselves. These are not reproductions, these are the real thing. And they – these 19th century, early 20th century images are very fragile. They can only take so much amount of light and travel. And as such, the show will be here this spring through the beginning of June and then it’ll go on the road to the Gilchrist Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then we’ll have to bring these pictures home to rest. So we’re thrilled to be able to bring the show here to California because California’s such an important part of the west’s history during the latter half of the 19th century but it is a once in a – opportunity to see these rare treasures.

CAVANAUGH: And besides the photographs, what else is part of the “Faces of the Frontier” exhibit?

GOODYEAR: Well, there’s also a great audio tour. We recorded audio commentaries with 12 celebrities from the American west and a couple of Smithsonian scholars. We have recordings by Sandra Day O’Connor, for instance, former Senator Alan Simpson, Wilma Mankiller, the former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and so it’s so wonderful to get their perspectives on these portraits and the lives of these particular individuals.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for telling us about it. It just sounds fascinating.

GOODYEAR: Maureen, thank you for being – for having us here today.

CAVANAUGH: “Faces of the Frontier” – First of all, I’ve been speaking with Frank Goodyear III. He’s associate curator of photographs with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. And “Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits from the American West, 1845-1924” runs through June 6th at the San Diego Historical – History Center which used to be the San Diego Historical Society. It is still in Balboa Park. If you’d like to comment, please go online, Coming up, the stars of the San Diego Opera production of “Romeo and Juliet” will sing for us. That’s next as These Days continues here on KPBS.