A Danish Photographer of Idaho Indians: Benedicte Wrensted
By Joanna Cohan Scherer
University of Oklahoma Press, $29.95
Benedicte Wrensted at first seems like an anomaly, a woman photographer who took pictures of Indians in the late 19th- and early 20th-century West. But, as Joanna Cohan Scherer's wonderful book makes clear, she was representative of a sizable but now ignored group of photographers.
Scherer lists the names of 25 female photographers who during the same period also took pictures of American Indians. None of them came close to achieving the fame of Edward Curtis, the best-known photographer of Indians during the period. Even the second tier of fame among photographers of Indians includes only men (Timothy O'Sulliven, William Bell, William Henry Jackson, among others).
But, as Scherer demonstrates, being a photographer was an acceptable profession for a woman at the turn of the 19th century. The same was true in Denmark, where Wrensted learned her trade.
Wrensted was born in northern Denmark in 1859, grew up to establish a successful photography business there, doing mostly portraits, but in 1895, at age 36 and less than three years after her father died, moved with her mother to Pocatello, Idaho.
In Pocatello she opened a photography shop, where she took posed pictures of anyone who came in. Among her many customers were Shoshone and Bannock Indians from the nearby Fort Hall reservation.
Since her photos were taken to be sold to customers who posed for them, she often retouched them. For example, she typically removed wrinkles from her subjects' faces. Many of the Indians are dressed in clothing more commonly worn by whites. Many of the photos have painted backgrounds.
In an interesting mini-essay in her Introduction, Scherer compares the work of Curtis and Wrensted. Despite the obvious similarities (same profession, same subjects), the differences are more telling. Curtis took more than 40,000 pictures. Only about 500 of Wrensted's survive, although she no doubt took more than that.
Curtis' work was intended mostly for publication and exhibition. Wrensted's were intended for sale. Scherer concludes that because the differences between the two outweigh the similarities, "on the whole they are barely comparable."
Wrensted, who would never marry, was active in the Lutheran church. In 1906, she traveled to Salt Lake City to arrange for a Lutheran minister to hold services in Pocatello in her studio. She retired in 1912 at age 53 and moved to California, where she died in 1949 at age 89.
The 176 black-and-white photos in A Danish Photographer of Idaho Indians (many of them of whites in Pocatello) seem posed and even artificial. The cover photo, for example, of an Eastern Shoshone named Eddy Drink, taken about 1910, shows a young man sitting in what must be an uncomfortable posture. It is typical of Wrensted's work.
Scherer is mildly defensive about evaluating Wrensted's work: "I am not an art historian [she is an anthropologist] and I do not analyze Wrensted's photographs as art." But she doesn't hedge in stating her primary underlying motivation for writing the book: "Putting a woman back into American photographic history is in itself sufficient reason for resurrecting the photography of Benedicte Wrensted."
Martin Naparsteck reviews books from and about the West for The Salt Lake Tribune.