When Reed turned 18, he apprenticed as a carpenter before setting off to work in a sawmill in West St. Paul. It turned out he wasn’t keen to stay in one place and landed a job with the Canadian Pacific Railroad. His travels with the railroad lasted many years and exposed him to various tribes who continued to capture his interest. An accident at work in Winnipeg forced him to spend time recuperating and led to a short-lived return to Minnesota.
In his journal he said “The Indian was upper most in my mind, don’t know why, but no trip I could plan satisfied me unless it led into Indian country, so I began to plan a trip down the Mississippi River. This plan matured when I had a chance to be shipped to below Memphis, Tenn. to work on the levy.”
Reed made his way south to explore Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, and the lands of the Apache. He saw first-hand the impact of reservation life and his motivation to tell the story of native ways as they were, was ignited.
He secured another job with the railroads, this time with the Great Northern Railway. He made his living through sketching and portraiture, portraying the life and ways of the indigenous people of the Plains.
A chance meeting in 1893 with Daniel Dutro, a professional portrait photographer with a studio in Havre, Montana would alter the trajectory of Reed’s career. When he saw how quickly he could work with the aid of a camera, he entered an apprenticeship with Dutro and earned his living taking pictures. In 1897 Reed was hired by the Associated Press in Seattle to photograph the Klondike gold rush in Alaska, and he was back on the road.
In his own journal he recalled the experience “I found no gold but spent most of what money I had in supplies to carry me through winter. I found several villages of Indians along the coast in the vicinity of the mouth of Diea Creek. They were an honest hospitable and kindly people, but a very poor representative of the North American Indian. They made such a poor impression on me that I left for the states on the first ship south in the spring without making any pictures worthwhile.”
Within a year he returned home and decided to open his own photography business the Reed Studio in Ortonville, Minnesota. His reputation as a portrait photographer soon preceded him and he opened a second studio in Bemidji, Minnesota, very close to land occupied by the Ojibwe. Once again, Reed found himself in the right place and the right time, and in 1907 he handed over his studio, packed his bags and set off on his mission to “start on my long-deferred campaign in portraying the North American Indian.”
By the turn of the 20th Century, it was widely believed Native Americans were a ‘vanishing race.’ The United States government had already forced tribes off their lands and strived to strip them of their customs and traditional ways of life.
The indigenous people were not wiped out as was thought would happen, but many of their traditions were irrevocably lost. It is to this end, Reed’s work, like that of his contemporaries did in fact prove to be a valuable record.
Reed was a pictorialist, a term derived from an artistic movement introduced in the 1860s in Europe. Pictorialism inspired self-expression in imagery through tonality and composition, rather than the traditional scientific approach to photography of the era.
Like Curtis, Reed wanted to represent the Native Americans in their glory. The U.S. government decimated much of their cultural norms by forcing indigenous children into boarding schools, cutting their hair, and banning the use of native languages. Reed went to great lengths to capture scenes, to portray the old way of life in all its tradition and majesty. His work emanates cultural pride and the unmistakable bond shared by a people and their land.
Reed immersed himself within the tribes he photographed, overcoming hesitation and often aggression from leaders who opposed his presence. His method was always to gain their trust and garner permission to capture images which on some accounts were deeply personal.
In a letter to an editor of the Minneapolis Journal dated April 2, 1923, Reed described his ability to achieve his portfolio of imagery. “In approaching the Indian for the purpose of taking his picture, it is necessary to respect his stoicism and reticence which have so often been the despair of the amateur photographer. A friend once characterized my method of attack as indicative of Chinese patience, book-agent persistence, and Arab subtlety. In going into a new tribe with photographic paraphernalia, although I hire ponies, wagons, guides etc., I never once suggest the object of my visit. When the Indians, out of curiosity at last, inquire about my work, I reply casually, “Oh, when I’m home, I’m a picture taking man.” Perhaps within a few days an Indian will ask, “You say you are a picture-taking man; could you make our pictures?” My reply is non-committal, “I don’t know – perhaps.” “Would you try?” “Sometime, when I feel like making pictures.” Further time elapses: apparently the picture taking man has forgotten about making pictures until an Indian friend reminds him of his promise – and then the time for picture-making has arrived. They are imbued with the subject I am trying to depict and the pose in all earnestness.”
Reed’s images were limited to eight tribes – the Ojibwe in Minnesota, the Blackfeet, Piegan, Flathead, Cheyenne and Blood in northern Montana and southern Canada, and the Navajo and Hopi in Arizona.
He was meticulous in the detail for each image, using only authentic artifacts, often moving props from tribe to another. Towards the end of his career, he said it would no longer be possible to achieve what he had done for so many of the artifacts had been sold to tourists. Like Curtis, he chose to share a narrative perspective of the scenes he captured. Subjects were staged and evidence of modern intervention was removed or hidden from view. He wanted to share a story of the past, which was welcomed by his subjects.
In a personal description of image “Tribute to the Dead” circa 1912 Reed said “You may imagine the difficulty I experienced in finding a family ready to have a funeral and in making them revert to this old, abandoned custom. Then, when I secured their consent, I was told by an old Indian that I couldn’t get it as it really used to be, because there were no more complete Buffalo hides with head and tail left on, such as they used to wrap the bodies in. I knew a woman in Kalispell who had an old head and tail hide and we postponed the funeral until I could go to Kalispell and induce her to lend it to me. Everything you see in that picture is correct; it might have been taken 100 years ago.”
Reed’s time in Kalispell amounted to some of his most prolific work. He formed part of an artistic community and close friends included painters Charles M. Russell, Johannes Anderson, and Julius Seyler. Each one had an affiliation to what became Glacier National Park in 1910. Reed’s portrait of Russell taken in 1921 is one of his most famous images today. During Reed’s time in Montana, he was welcomed by the Blackfeet and given the Indigenous name, Big Plume.
In 1914, Reed made San Diego, California his base with a new studio. His work captured the attention of the executives of the Southwest Society, the western branch of the Archaeological Institute of America. He was selected to be part of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition with an exhibit in the Southwest Museum, now part of the Autry National Center. It marked a high point in his career.
In an article published by the Kalispell Bee on January 10, 1913, it read “Roland Reed is perhaps the peer of any artist in the world in his own line. For years he has made a study of the ways of the North American Indian, has lived and worked among many of them and in his time secured some of the most wonderful pictures ever taken of them. His collection will someday be the most valuable of its kind in the world and will net Mr. Reed a fortune.
That fortune never materialized. Although he sold a limited number of photographic rights to National Geographic Magazine and the Great Northern Railway, he shunned any commercialism of his indigenous photography collection. He turned down an offer of $15,000 for approximately 200 negatives, which would have been much of his work. Instead, he relied on his portrait photography to afford a humble living.
From 1920 to 1927, Reed opened two more studios, one in Red Wing, Minnesota and another in Denver, Colorado. Later in life, he intended to publish a book titled “Photographic Art Studies of the North American Indian,” not for commercial gain, but as a method of educating future generations. He was working on it with his cousin Roy Williams when he passed away suddenly.
On November 10, 1934, while visiting friends Reed slipped on a banana peel and suffered a fracture of the thoracic vertebra. He developed inflammation of the spinal cord and died on December 10 at St. Francis Hospital in Colorado Springs. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Evergreen, Colorado. His life’s works became the property of Roy Williams.
In 2012 Ernest R. Lawrence published a book, Alone with the Past, The Life and Photographic Art of Roland W. Reed, which was declared “as close to a catalogue raisonné as will be for Roland Reed,” by Sandra Starr, a senior researcher for the department of history and culture at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. The same year, Lawrence and a small group of supporters donated a headstone to commemorate an artist who earned his place in history.
Royal W. (Roland) Reed JR. (1864 – 1934) was a fastidious artist who used photography as his chosen medium to document the ways of eight Indigenous American tribes at the turn of the 20th century. Little is known of this photographer, whose untimely death and lack of resources failed to award him the same recognition as his most notable contemporary, Edward S. Curtis (1868 – 1952).
Curtis created around 40,000 photographs, compared to Reed’s portfolio of several hundred images. However, Reed was self-funded, self-directed, and adverse to commercialism. He was driven by a deep appreciation for the indigenous population and his own necessity to document their historic practices for future generations.
Reed was born in Omro in the Fox River Valley, Wisconsin in 1868, four years earlier and 100 miles away from Curtis. He was the fourth of six children, only he and his sister Mabel made it to adulthood. The family’s log cabin sat along a popular trail frequented by a band of the Menominee tribe. At age seven his fascination for “Indians” arose after two fellow pupils were saved from a near drowning incident by three Menominee, one of whom was a chief named Thundercloud. Reed declared him, his childhood hero.