Barriers & Bridges: Orlando Scott Goff & David Francis Barry
More than four decades after his death, an editorial in the Bismarck Tribune identified Orlando Scott (O.S.) Goff as the person who took the first photograph of Sitting Bull. Today, the stereotype that American Indians feared cameras would take part of their soul has been largely debunked, but the 1949 editorial claimed:
[...] like most Indians of that era [Sitting Bull] was superstitious and believed that it was ‘bad medicine’ to have the ‘white man shadow-catcher’ point his little black box at him--it would mean that some part of his spirit would be taken away from him. The more time his picture was taken, the more of his spirit he would lose. So, at first, the Sioux chief refused to enter Goff’s studio.
Although the editorial assumed Sitting Bull hesitated to be photographed because of superstition, there are many other reasons he may have resisted sitting for his first portrait. He could have been unsure of when he would be paid, or perhaps he was taking time to consider how he wanted to portray himself in the photograph. The editorial went on to say when Goff offered Sitting Bull $50, Sitting Bull acquiesced. The article described the scene, “Sitting stiffly upright and holding his pipe across his arms, he permitted Goff to make one negative, then collected his $50 and hastily left the studio.”¹ Eventually Sitting Bull sat for many more portraits.Note: To view information about the photo, click on the photo once. To view the full-sized photo, click on the photo again. Use the back arrow in your browser to navigate back to the exhibit.
O.S. Goff 1843 - 1906
In 1880, Goff opened a studio in Bismarck, North Dakota, "a growing town." He then took young David Francis (D.F.) Barry under his wing and taught him photography. In 1886, Goff gave his Bismarck studio to his protege before returning to Fort Custer, Montana to re-establish a studio there.⁴
Like his mentor Goff, Barry also had conflicts with tribal leaders. In 1881, Chief Gall and his Hunkpapa Lakota band were taken as prisoners of war and forced to march through cold and hunger to Fort Buford, North Dakota. Barry came to photograph them. According to a 1938 article in the Northwest Tribune, "Barry was most interested in getting a chance at Gall, whose face he considered unusually fine.” There were several misunderstandings between Barry, Gall, and the camp interpreter. The price was originally set for $6 per portrait, but later the interpreter said the tribe was requesting $21 each. The article described the many “challenges” Barry undertook to get Chief Gall’s portrait:
[...] the chief appeared, accompanied by the scout and Captain Clifford. But he was a most difficult subject. Not only was the usual ‘Look pleasant please’ out of the question, but the chief had not dressed up, insisted that the picture must be taken standing up or not at all, and refused to co-operate in the posing. Barry made tentative efforts to get the Indian’s chin down, withdrew as though his fingers had been burned. For Gall stood ‘firm as a rock.’”
According to the article, Gall demanded the glass plate, and Barry refused to give it to him. Gall drew his knife. Barry drew a pistol. They de-escalated the situation, but tensions remained in the camp and the two men did not work together again until years later.²
D.F. Barry 1854 - 1934
Goff presumably sold some of his negatives to Barry. According to an article in the Bismarck Tribune, "...after Barry had become widely known as a frontier photographer, he copyrighted and sold as his own many pictures which obviously were the work of his teacher."⁵
The relationships between Sitting Bull and Goff and Barry and Gall seemed to improve over time. After Goff took Sitting Bull’s first portrait, Sitting Bull lived nine more years and had many portraits taken, including more by Goff. Similarly, Gall and Barry later became ‘good friends’ and Gall posed for many photographs, but they never discussed the photo booth incident at Ft. Buford.³ We cannot fully know why individual tribe members sat for portraits in the nineteenth century. What these two stories do show is that misunderstandings due to cultural differences, language barriers, power dynamics, and questions of ownership were common. These challenges still exist today.
- Elmo Scott Watson, “Local Man Took First Picture: Letter Discloses Orlando Scott Goff ‘Snapped Phots,” Bismark ND Tribune, May 12, 1949, Montana Historical Society Photo Archives Photographer Files, Helena, MT.
- “Knife and Gunplay Attended Photographing of Gall, Chief of Sioux, at Fort Buford in 1881,” Northwest Tribune, Stevensville, August 4, 1938, Montana Historical Society Photo Archives Photographer Files, Helena, MT.
- "Knife and Gunplay..."