Collecting “Types”

Collecting “Types”

Contemporary Native photographer Will Wilson (Diné) uses wet-plate collodion and tintype processes to create portraits that rethink the legacy of “types” and the settler gaze. In a recent series, Wilson collaborates with his sitters to “indigenize” the photographic exchange. In the resulting “talking tintypes,” Native people talk back from their own perspective in the twenty-first century. To activate the image above, download the “Talking Tintype” app on your smart phone and hold it up to this screen. Will Wilson, Madrienne Salgado, Jingle Dress Dancer/Government and Public Relations Manager for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Citizen of the Muckleshoot Nation, 2017, Talking Tintype, from the series Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange: Seattle Art Musuem

Photographic “types” are one of the earliest—and most discriminatory—manifestations of visual anthropology. By the 1860s, evolutionary theory dominated the nascent fields of anthropology and ethnography. Social scientists used the visual observation of human bodies—especially the shape and size of skulls—to categorize imaginary “races” within a fixed evolutionary framework that positioned the “northern Caucasian” at the top and the “Negro” at the bottom. Photography was a tool that lent supposed objectivity to these practices, helping to validate systems of oppression, violence, and genocide such as slavery and settler colonialism.

Identifying races by “type” linked physical features with cultural characteristics. Bodies blurred with clothing, wares, occupations, and trades. The portrait studio—with its elaborate props and backdrops—became the preferred space to stage and animate human “types.” While created with the same tools used to produce portraiture, “types” are decidedly not portraits, which portray subjects as people. Rather, these photographs look past individual identity to focus on the unique dress, exotic wares, or fabricated environments of the figure represented. As such, they found equal purchase in both scientific and commercial contexts. Oftentimes, images were decontextualized through circulation; the same photograph could pass as a souvenir or the subject of an anthropometric study.

In this tour, you can see more “types” related to those on view in Making, Not Taking, learn about how these objects entered the Davis Museum’s collection, and trace the various functions they have served since their creation in studios around the globe.

This tour was developed by Stephanie Fan ’22 and Carrie Cushman, Linda Wyatt Gruber ’66 Curatorial Fellow in Photography.