Ed Drew’s ‘Native Portraits’ Drawn from Talking Circles, Fixed on Tintypes

"Native Portraits: Contemporary Tintypes by Ed Drew." Courtesy of the artist and Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco

On July 21, Spayne Martinez walked into the California Historical Society at the corner of Annie and Mission Streets in San Francisco. As an Academy of Art University alumna, she probably walked past the building countless times on her way to class in SOMA, but never with a 12-foot picture of her on display in the front windows. Inside, Martinez enthusiastically greeted Ed Drew, the photographer of behind Native Portraits: Contemporary Tintypes, on view at the CHS through Nov. 27.

"Spayne"2014-2015 Tintype by Ed Drew. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco.
"Spayne"2014-2015 Tintype by Ed Drew. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco.

Martinez beamed as she pointed out her son strapped to her back in the portrait and her cousin's portrait a few frames down. As a professional portrait photographer herself and a tribal community member of the Klamath Basin, Martinez has a unique insight into the photographic representations of Native people.

In a recent Instagram post, Spayne holds a book of Edward S. Curtis photographs over her face with the caption “Oh Edward” (cue exasperated sigh). Curtis is best known for documenting “The North American Indian” in the early 1900s. Many Native Americans and Canada’s First People criticize Curtis for fabricating historically inaccurate representations of Native people, erasing their modern identities.

 

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Below Martinez's caption is a comment from Ed Drew, conveying a similar reaction to the problematic photographer.

Unlike Curtis and his subjects, Drew and Martinez met during a series of “talking circles” sponsored by Klamath Tribal Health & Family Services. Tribal mental health worker Monica YellowOwl commissioned Drew to create empowering portraits of community members as part of the meetings.

YellowOwl says of the project, “I wanted to somehow capture the different generations of tribal members and their perspectives on surviving trauma and hardships, as well as capture their spirit in these still photos... Upon the first exposure of the tintype, [we] were taken aback by the way it captured the spirit. It was intensely moving.”

"Monica" 2014-15 Tintype by Ed Drew. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco.
"Monica" 2014-15 Tintype by Ed Drew. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco.

While tribal members of Northern California and Southern Oregon's Klamath Basin shared their experiences of addiction, tragedy, abuse, crime and racism, Drew developed a deeper appreciation for their struggles, and in turn, shared his own experiences as a person of African American and Puerto Rican descent.

“I always have to connect with people when I make photos,” says Drew.

Martinez echoed the importance of this connection. “These photographs are way more powerful because he knows something about each of us. He shares a bond with us,” she says.

 

Museums often frame Native culture as a thing of the past, but Drew flips the script by creating modern portraits with an antiquated photographic technique. Showcasing modern and traditional aspects of the Klamath Basin tribal communities, he places the subjects of his photographs firmly in the present.

While Americans continually appropriate Native American culture in fashion, Drew's portraits show how Tiarah Head reclaims trendy "tribal print" leggings and Arwin Rodney Head sports a hoodie featuring a headdress-wearing skull. Drew encouraged his subjects to wear their own clothes and bring their own props. A portrait of young Montell Weeks in a sweatshirt and jeans shows him holding an iPhone in one hand, a bird wing in another.

Self Portrait by Ed Drew. Courtesy Ed Drew.
Self Portrait by Ed Drew. Courtesy Ed Drew.

Outside of the Native Portraits project, Drew’s art focuses on American history from the perspective of minority groups and people of color. He began making 19th-century style tintypes while studying sculpture at the San Francisco Art Institute. He enjoys the physicality of this highly controlled process, using chemicals to create a photographic exposure on a plate of metal.

CHS Managing Curator of Exhibitions Erin Garcia notes that tintypes have historically only been used to portray white, privileged subjects. In traditional portraits, architectural columns were used as set pieces to convey strength and virility. In his five-by-seven-inch tintypes, Drew choses instead to use trees and natural settings as the symbols of power for his Native subjects.

Each tintype is titled with the first name of the subject, with his or her full name in parenthesis. Drew's familiarity with his subjects is clear, as is his respect for each of them as individuals within a larger community.

Native Portraits: Contemporary Tintypes is on view at the California Historical Society in San Francisco through Nov. 27. For tickets and more information, visit californiahistoricalsociety.org.

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