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Friday, 13 December 2013


Some Burton Frasher postcards of Native Americans
 “Any man who thinks he can be happy and prosperous by letting the government take care of him better take a closer look at the American Indian.”
Henry Ford

If the first word that comes to mind when you look at this postcard is ‘stereotype’, Burton Frasher would probably have been satisfied. It meant that he had taken a photo a lot of Americans understood so it was sure to be popular. He comes across as a man of many interests, with a sharp eye for the beauty of the landscape, but in business he was a pragmatist. If clichés sold well he would make clichés and to hell with his legacy. He took hundreds of photographs of Native Americans that he turned into postcards and more than a few are of noble savages, Indian princesses and cute scenes of babies wrapped in papooses. It is important to make that clear, because he also took a lot that show something deeper. In a way he is like John Wayne’s character Captain York in Fort Apache: a man who has lived long enough among a people to understand and respect their ways and mores but is conditioned to follow another path. Comparing this against some of Frasher’s other postcards, I think these people are from the Acoma Pueblo.

Frasher was based in Pomona, California, and the Pomona Library has thousands of his photographs in its archive. Quite a few, though apparently still a fraction of the complete works, are online here: If you are interested in real photo postcards, landscape photography or the American west and you don’t know about the Frasher’s Fotos collection, prepare to spend a few hours looking at his work. For this post we are only interested in the photos he took of Navajo, Hopi and Apache people in the American southwest.
Most of them belong to what could be called the National Geographic School of Photography: the images are anthropological and are carefully composed so as to contain everything we need to know. The caption for this scene is almost superfluous. We can see where and how people live and what they do. What is interesting about it, as with every photo here bar the first one, is its candid appearance. They are obviously aware of Frasher – he used a view camera on a tripod and was hard to ignore – but they aren’t posing for him. 

 In the Hopi butterfly dance the women wear elaborate head dresses and the men much more simple costumes to thank the spirits or, so far as I understand things, politely ask them to keep up the good weather. The colourful costumes and the absence of any militaristic overtones made the butterfly dance popular with tourists. There are a few things to note about this photograph. The first is the setting. There are hundreds of postcards of Hopi dancers floating about, most showing the tourists and reservation police, or some background detail that makes it apparent who the dance is being performed for. We can’t be so sure with this scene. The people are stationary so we could assume they are waiting for the performance to start but, like all the best National Geographic photos, we could be looking at an actual performance; one the tourists don’t get to see.
I could be reading too much into this photo but the way the man on the far left looks away at something off camera, breaks up the pattern. It suggests these people aren’t posing for Frasher.
I like the boy sitting down at the front too. The scan at the Frasher Collection (search under ‘butterfly’) is clearer. He looks decidedly bored. 

So far as is known, the Navajo have lived in Canyon de Chelly since the 14th century. There were others before them but the records are hazy. From the 1860s onwards the U.S Government did its best to drive the Navajo out. The most notorious effort was a massacre led by that hero of American popular culture, Kit Carson, in 1864. In 1931 Canyon de Chelly was declared a national park under the jurisdiction of the Navajo nation. To Washington’s credit, it would be another 50 years before Australia framed legislation that gave its indigenous inhabitants similar rights over their traditional land. Thanks to the Pomona Library’s Frasher Collection, we can date this postcard to 1935, when the Canyon was under Navajo control, and that would suggest this man in one of the official guides, without which outsiders weren’t permitted to enter the area.
It’s a good photo, not a great one, but what gives it particular interest is the comparison …

… To this one. Look at the different postures of the riders, how this boy leans forward, tense and uncertain about the photographer. It is dated 1936 in the Frasher archives. Referring back to John Wayne and Fort Apache, which came out in 1948: for those of us who grew up watching Native Americans being played by Anthony Quinn (Mexican), Michael Ansara (Syrian) and Michael Pate (Australian), it was a genuine shock to see Apaches played by actual Apaches and Navajos by Navajos. We can read an arc of redemption in Johns Ford and Wayne, from their 1930s films where Native Americans are not much more than bloodthirsty hoodlums on horseback to Fort Apache, where the disgust at their treatment by government agents and the cavalry is apparent. And this was twenty years before the civil rights movement, when it became easy to depict Wayne as a right wing gun nut. All this to wonder if the man in this photo may have played an extra in Ford’s films, and was Frasher like Ford and Wayne a man who saw enough to read the lies in the myth?

Which brings us to this image and a scene that speaks of acute poverty, dispossession and desolation; to us anyway. Was that what Frasher saw? Bear in mind that in the 1930s postcard photographers sought the positive, beautiful and exotic in their images and to a lot of Americans the original inhabitants were exotic. If you lived in New York or Chicago for example, the chances of meeting a Native American who still lived by traditional ways were unlikely unless you travelled to the southwest. This didn’t mean New Yorkers had no idea what was going on in Arizona but they might have preferred the image at the top of the post to this one.
Consider the caption: “Arizona Apaches”. There is another version of this postcard that says it was taken “North of Hwy 70 between Globe and Stafford”. That places it just west of Phoenix and something in the phrasing suggests that Frasher was driving along the highway when he saw the couple and pulled over to take a photo.  It is possible that he saw them as exotic examples of the original America and examples of social neglect and thought that customers would want postcards of ‘real’ Apaches as opposed to stereotypes. This was taken in the 1930s, when the closest contact most Americans had with Apaches was on the cinema screen. You’ll notice the couple don’t look pleased to be having their photo taken but they aren’t resisting. It is possible that Frasher knew enough of the Apache language to be able to approach them.

The final image was taken in 1936. There are two other postcards in the Pomona collection showing the same two women at this event. The scene is full of detail, and carefully composed so the telephone pole isolates the man from the women, but it doesn’t tell us much. They could be at a rodeo, a tribal meeting or a market.
Whether you think Frasher’s photos of Native Americans are his best work depends upon your preference though several of these would be among his best photos of Native Americans. They don’t challenge any photographic rules and they conform to a safe idea of how indigenous people should be depicted, but placed against the great mass of postcard portraits and tourist scenes available they have a candour other photographers avoided. The language in his captions belongs to the 1930s but most of these are studies of people, not types.


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