The Art of Stereotyping

Stereotypes, or more precisely, stereographic images have long been objects of fascination in the arts and sciences. Centuries before the advent of photography, artists such as Giovanni Battista della Porta (1538-1615) and Jacopo Chimenti da Empoli (1554-1640) produced binocular drawings that, when viewed appropriately, appeared three-dimensional. In the early 1600s, Francois d'Aguillion termed this art form stéréoscopique.

In 1838, Professor Charles Wheatstone, Esq. made the first scientific efforts to articulate a theory of stereoscopy. This theory explained, "Our two eyes see two somewhat different pictures, which our perception combines to form one picture, representing objects in all their dimensions, and not merely as surfaces." [Holmes, Oliver Wendell. "The Stereoscope and the Stereograph." The Atlantic Monthly. June 1859, pp. 738-48.] To demonstrate his theory, Wheatstone invented what is commonly known as the stereoscope. The original device, now kept at the Science Museum in London, has a pair of lenses and a slot where a stereograph could be inserted, thus, allowing the two images on the stereograph to be viewed in three dimensions. Eleven years after Wheatstone presented his invention to the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, Sir David Brewster created a binocular camera, and the first stereoscopic photographs were produced.

Heralded by Oliver Wendell Holmes as "the mirror with a memory" [Holmes, Oliver Wendell. "The Stereoscope and the Stereograph." The Atlantic Monthly. June 1859, pp. 738-48.] stereographic photos grew in popularity during the last half of the 19th Century ("the mirror with a memory" was originally a term used in reference to daguerreotypes). With Holmes' invention of the hand-held stereoscope in 1861 (above pg. 1), people could see life-like images of everything from the minutest details of insects and flowers to the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome where, in Holmes' words:
The arches of Constantine and of Titus give not only every letter of the old inscriptions, but render the grain of the stone itself. On the pediment of the Pantheon may be read, not only the words traced by Agrippa, but a rough inscription above it, scratched or hacked into the stone by some wanton hand during an insurrectionary tumult.
[Holmes, Oliver Wendell. "The Stereoscope and the Stereograph." The Atlantic Monthly. June 1859, pp. 738-48.]

Photographic details of this sort, Holmes and his contemporaries believed, portrayed "incidental truths" that captured the form of reality. These realistic details allowed the people viewing the pictures to feel as if they were present at the places they had seen, and for this reason, stereographs were often used in journalistic reporting and scientific studies. Because of the entertainment and educational value of stereographs, it is estimated that within a few years of Brewster's stereoscope being mass-produced, over one million homes owned a desktop stereoscope. This number only increased with the dissemination of Holmes' invention. By the 1890s, companies such as Underwood and Underwood produced and sold thousands of stereographs per day.

In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, photographers strived to have their work recognized as an art equal to that of painting. Those doubting the artistic merits of photography argued that it was a science, not an art. However, many photographers countered that controlling the scientific aspects of the photographic process was part of the art of producing aesthetically pleasing images. Indeed, the noted photographer David Gray Archibald states that although photography "is more mechanical than almost any other form of art" [Archibald, David Gray. American Anunal of Photography. pp 82.], a photograph should be considered art provided the photographer use "the same rules of composition which obtain [sic] in painting." [Day, F.H. "Photography applied to the Undraped Figure." American Annual of Photography, 1989. New York: Scovil Adams. pp 186-97.]. Since stereography was more closely associated with scientific studies and journalistic documentaries than other forms of photography, stereographers, in particular, struggled to have their work accepted as art. Even avid defenders of photography's artistic merits found stereography to be more science than art.

As the 19th Century closed, photography became more widely accepted as art mainly because photographers had learned how to use shading and to manually color images to make their pictures better resemble paintings. Sadakichi Hartmann states in 1898:
In recent years one has often had (looking at a print) the opportunity the exclaim, 'Why, that looks like a photograph from a painting.' Choice of subject, composition of background and pictures, distribution of space and light and shade were all of such a quality that even a painter, who had no belief whatever in artistic photography, was obliged to acknowledge its cleverness.

[Hartman, Sadakichi. American Anunal of Photography, 1898. pp 105.]

After the dawn of the 20th Century, the appreciation of photography's artistic merits redoubled and un-retouched photographs were recognized for their innate artistic elegance. With this greater acceptance of photography as art, toward the middle of the 20th Century, even stereographers such as Timothy O'Sullivan and Eadweard Muybridge (famous for his scientific studies using stereotypes), started being recognized as artists.

Whether thought of as art, scientific study or documentary, a good photograph was supposed to adhere to certain precepts, namely that the photograph represent its subject truthfully and realistically. Accordingly, P.H. Emerson advises, in his Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art:
One thing you must never forget, that is the type; you must choose your models most carefully, and they must without fail be picturesque and typical. The student should feel that there never was such a fisherman, or such a ploughman, or such a poacher, or such an old man, or such a beautiful girl, as he is picturing.

[P.H. Emerson. Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, ltd., 1889. pp 251.]

Thus, photographic convention dictated that the subjects represented in the picture be as authentic as possible. Although many popular themes were imitated, photographers such as J.C Warburg believed that these imitations were amateurish because they were readily detectible. He states:
When a person wears the same costume day after day, it adapts itself to his figure, to his movements, to his pursuits and attitudes. It blends with the individual himself and receives the impress of his ways . . . . [a] discrepancy between model and clothes is often very apparent in the work . . . . the photographer will therefore act wisely to try and secure, where this is possible, the genuine model."

[Warburg, J.C. "Some Notes on Genre Work." American Annual of Photography, 1902. pp 199-204.]

In other words, the more diligent a photographer was at selecting an authentic, representative model, the better the photograph was considered-the more stereotypical, the better the stereotype.

Stereotyping Native America
Securing the "genuine model" became especially important to photographers toward the end of the 19th century. As the frontier was declared closed and as more and more American Indians began attending boarding schools and residing on reservations, preservation of what mainstream Americans believed to be authentic Native American 'types' became a paramount concern. The photographer Spensly Cato writes in The American Annual of Photography, 1902:
Each year as it comes sees the range of civilization grow wider and wider. Customs and habits of dress and manners which are common to-day will in a few years time have ceased to exist, and photographic records of them will increase in interest as time passes.

[Cato, Spensly. "Natives." American Annual of Photography, 1902. pp 67-70.]

Since it was popularly believed that photography portrayed truths, photographs were "deemed the perfect medium for documenting ethnic diversity: The photograph was regarded as a transparent reflection of the world 'behind' the photograph's surface." [Burgin, Victor (ed.) 1982 Thinking Photography, London, Macmillan and Baderoon, Gabeba; Christopher Roper and Hermann Wittenberg (eds) 1996. Inter Action 4. Proceedings of the Fourth Postgraduate Conference. Bellville: UWC Press, pages 83 - 90.]. This held doubly true for stereographs, which were considered to be the most realistic form of photography because they produced images that replicated human vision.

To answer the call of preservation and to satisfy people's curiosity about what the Indians who were supposedly so readily vanishing were like, many stereographers began documenting displays of what they believed to be authentic Indian types. Like their contemporaries Edward Curtis, George L. Beam, and Harriet Smith Pullen, stereographers such as Bert Underwood and William Illingsworth sought Indian subjects, ensuring they were posed and dressed in accordance with dominant notions of 'Indianness.' They then submitted those images to printers who widely distributed the stereotypes for sale to people who wanted to view them in one of the many hand- held stereoscopes then part of American households.

The untitled stereograph published by Underwood and Underwood (the company began and run by the brothers Bert and Elmer Underwood) depicting an encampment of Iroquois offers just such an image. Nearly twenty men sit in a teepee circle and pose for the camera. They are wearing headdresses, aiming bows-and-arrows, and smoking peace pipes. A duplicate image is inscribed "Picturesque Village Scene of the Iroquois Descendants of the Fierce Foes of the Canadian Colonists. Ontario, Canada." Viewers of the stereotype are to assume that this image represents precisely what the inscription says. Although the image may indeed be of people descended from the Iroquoian "foes of the Canadian Colonists," the very setting and props captured in the image undermine the notion of its authenticity; specifically, Iroquois did not live in teepees. The men in the encampment were likely depicted as such because popular American notions avowed that all Indians lived in teepees.

This is precisely the problem that many stereographers and, indeed, photographers had photographing Indian types: other Americans largely based what constituted Americans' versions of authentic 'Indianness' on stories. Writers like James Fennimore Cooper, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Davy Crockett had composed enormously influential texts explicitly describing what they believed American Indians to be. The stereos inscribed, "Nursed the Little Hiawatha," for instance, are clearly inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. The stereographs themselves depict an Indian woman with a child in a cradleboard and they are posed so as to evoke Americans' nostalgia for the little Hiawatha.

Authentic or manufactured, Indians were put on display for American audiences. In fact, popular entertainment venues during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries featured re-creations of American Indians' native environments. Such life-sized dioramas could be found at the World's Fairs, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows. Visitors often took snapshots of these re-creations, and professional stereographers also found the exhibits to be of enough interest to document. Bert Underwood, for instance, photographed a young boy standing in front of an earthen lodge. The sign on the lodge reads "Pawnee Earthen Lodge" and the inscription on the back of the stereotype indicates that the photo was taken at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (see figure 10.) The sign above the lodge door is for the benefit of the American audience, as is the young boy posing with a cradleboard in front of the lodge. For his services in displaying 'Indianness,' the boy would have been paid a few dollars, the very young making more money than most others who posed as Indians.

Where else but in a diorama explicitly constructed to represent 'Indianness' could a photographer buy precisely what he was looking for-a scene that depicts an authentic Indian type?

Vroman's Vision
Despite the preponderance of American desire for stereotypical images of Native Americans, some photographers did not bow to convention. Active during the turn of the 20th Century, Adam Clark Vroman is one such photographer. Vroman was born on April 15, 1856, in La Salle, Illinois. Due to his wife's ill health, the two moved to Pasadena, California in 1892. Coincidentally, 1892 is the year that Vroman began taking pictures of the Southwest. Unlike many photographers of the time, he was renown for being very respectful of his subjects, and he readily made friends with the people he photographed on the Hopi and Acoma reservations. In 1894 his wife died and he entered into a business partnership with J.S. Glasscock. They opened a bookshop and photographic supply store, which prospered and, in fact, still operates in Pasadena today. Among Vroman's photographic accomplishments is his illustration of the 1913 edition of Helen Hunt Jackson's novel Ramona.

Despite his association with Jackson, Vroman is most famous for his series of photographs of California Missions and for his portraits of American Indians. Unlike his contemporaries who fought to have photography recognized as art based on its similarity to paintings and its classical content, Vroman approached his subjects as if to emphasize the merits of photography by defying the expectation that photographic subjects conform to a type. His picture entitled "'Juliet' at the Window" (right) provides a perfect example of this. Where noted photographers such as F.H. Day argued, "if a photographer wishes to reproduce classic themes he must first of all choose his subjects with the utmost discretion remembering that a Hercules can never be 'made to do' for a Vulcan or a Ganymede," [Day, F.H. "Photography applied to the Undraped Figure." American Annual of Photography, 1989. New York: Scovil Adams. pp 186-97.]. Vroman featured a Hopi woman as his model. This challenged the precept that content conform to type by casting a Hopi woman in the heroic mode of Shakespeare's Juliet, an unusual role for an Indian woman to occupy.

His picture entitled "Hopi Towns-Woman with Child" likewise defies conventions. In American narratives, one of the few roles an Indian woman was allowed to occupy was that of mother or, in common yet pejorative parlance, 'Squaw with Papoose.' Whereas most images import a sentiment similar to the one in "Nursed the Little Hiawatha," Vroman instead focuses on how the modern implements of the household intermingle with the basketry on the wall. The woman and child are out of focus, making the picture seem more about baking soda and basketry and the modernity of the people commonly thought of nostalgically as relics of the old western frontier. In his candid, unconventional approach to photography, Vroman was one of the first to unveil the prejudices of American stereotypes.

In the 1920s, the popularity of stereographs began to decline. Whether their pervasiveness waned because stereographic companies were in direct competition with the National Geographic Society or because motion pictures better captured America's imagination, stereographers no longer traveled around the world photographing all manner of peoples, landmasses, and architecture. The mass-distribution of these images to the eagerly awaiting public also faded. The "explorers . . . who [like their National Geographic counterparts] had traced the windings of our coasts and rivers, [and] enlightened us in the customs of the aborigines" found themselves pursuing different career paths. ["Birth of the Society." National 3-24-2005.].

However, the mark stereographs left on America's cultural heritage has not faded so quickly. Since stereotypical images were the overwhelming standard for stereographs and since these images had found a place American homes for over sixty years, the "types" they helped to establish continue to resonate in the American imagination. In fact, stereotypes of Native Americans, which were made ubiquitous by the media in the 1900s, are perpetuated to this day despite the unconventional work of Vroman and a few of his contemporaries. While it is impossible to undo hundreds of years of stereotyping, vernacular or pictorial, Stereotyping Native America offers insight into its perpetuation-into the demands of American audiences and the stereographers who responded.