Roland Reed began his life’s work shortly after the turn-of-the-century. It was his intention to publish a definitive photographic record of the North American Indian. Using a camera as big as an apple box that used heavy 11″ x 14″ glass plate negatives, he spent 25 years and a considerable fortune recording the images of the American Indian. He worked among the Woodland Indians (Ojibway), Plains Indians (Blackfeet, Cheyenne and Flathead) and the Southwest Indians (Navajo and Hopi). Reed had a sincere respect and affection for the Indian.
Most significantly, Reed insisted on achieving artistry as well as accuracy in his work–therein lies the greatness of his photographs. Carefully planned and perfectly executed, his pictures were not made in haste; several days or even weeks of patient preparation might precede a successful photograph. Consequently, his output was never voluminous. His first three years among the Indians produced scarcely a score of negatives, and in later years, a dozen superior photographs were considered a good year’s work. His photographs are a hauntingly accurate record of a past and glorious way of life.
Roland Reed was born in 1864 in the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin. His parents were farm people of a Scottish ancestry. He grew up in a log cabin near the old Indian trail that led from Lake Poygan to Fon du lac, and the hero of his boyhood days was an Indian named Thundercloud—the chief of the band of Menominies camped on the opposite side of the lake.
Gaining the Indian’s confidence must surely be one of Reed’s major accomplishments. His photographs show clearly how fully the Indians cooperated with him. In earlier days it was supposed that the camera might capture the spirit of the person photographed.
There is no doubt that Roland Reed was among the most talented of the Indian photographers, both from a technical and an artistic standpoint. Contemporary critics praise the composition and atmosphere of Reed’s photographs. This remarkable collection of photographs taken by Roland Reed in the early years of this century is more than a series of “interesting Indian pictures.” It is, in a sense an attempt to create a visual culture history of the American Indian.