Exhibit: The Bud Lake and Randy Brewer Collection

"Subjects" as Agents: Baumgartner Studios

Photography and the US West, 1840-1930

Early photography of the US West showed a fertile landscape with rivers that were easy to cross and hills that were easy to climb. This perpetuated a romantic vision of the West, which encouraged Euro-Americans to make their livelihood on these promising lands. Additionally, the US government forced tribes off their lands, so Indians no longer felt like a threat to homesteaders moving west. On the contrary, Euro-Americans began to romanticize American Indian people and cultures. This romanticism is what drove the desire for photographs of American Indians in the late nineteenth century. According to scholar Martha A. Sandweiss, author of Print the Legend: Photography and the American West, “In the late-nineteenth-century America, Indian culture came to be valued most at precisely the same moment it seemed most likely to disappear.”¹

But this isn’t the whole story. The “subjects” of photographs also had agency in the process. Sandweiss explains, “To imagine that every photograph of an indigenous person represents an act of cultural imperialism is to deny the ambitions of the sitter, the capacity of that sitter to understand the collaborative process of portrait making, and the cultural malleability and contingency of any photographic image.”² Both photographer and sitter had their own objectives for the photograph. As a viewer over a century later, it can be challenging to determine what those objectives may have been.

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Crow Indian man, woman, and boy. Crow Indian man wearing chaps.

Alfred Baumgartner Studios

Alfred Baumgartner emigrated from Switzerland when he was sixteen. He arrived in Coulson, Montana in 1882, the year it became Billings. According to the Billings Gazette, “People who knew the photographer well recall he was ‘too honest and straight laced’ to make much money, but that he was never stumped by a problem about photography.” While in Billings, his work centered around the landscape and people of the surrounding area, including members of the Crow tribe. Though much of his portfolio of the Crow are staged studio portraits, he also took photographs at Chief Plenty Coups' home and candid shots of groups of people outdoors. It doesn't appear that Baumgartner had close Crow friends, but according to the Billings Gazette the Crow people demonstrated their own agency when they posed for Baumgartner. From price negotiations, to what they wore, "sitters" were vocal about their desired outcomes. "If a Crow chief wanted to be pictured with an alarm clock around his neck," the Gazette explained, "that was the way Baumgartner photographed him."³

Plenty Coos with friends in his tent. Crow Indians at home.


  1. Martha A. Sandweiss, Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven and London, Yale University Press: 2002), 235.
  2. Sandweiss, 270.
  3. Bill Beasley, "Frontier Photographer's Lens Caught Spectacular Scenes, Characters: Baumgartner Pictures Still Selling," The Billings Gazette second section Billings, Montana Sunday January 6 1957, 71st year no. 249, Montana Historical Society Photo Archives Photographer Files, Helena, MT.