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Fiske exhibit

RAPID CITY, S.D. ? Their faces are still with us. Lakota who lived around the Standing Rock Agency in the first decade of the last century will look out from a photographic exhibit at the Sunlight Gallery of Prairie Edge here until the end of January.

The exhibit features the photos of Frank B. Fiske, who grew up in North Dakota at the turn of the 20th century. And while people who saw these photos a century ago may have been struck by the elaborate styles of Indian clothing and ornaments, this observer was stunned by the faces of these Indians undergoing the early years of the reservation era.

The expressions of regal pride ("Black Bear"), challenging derision ("Loon") and hurting endurance ("Mrs. Chasing Bear") seem truthful to the experience of Lakota on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation less than 20 years after the death of Sitting Bull, even if what they wear may or may not be traditional.

The few exterior shots are remarkable, also. One, called "Council Tipis" documents what the catalog calls a rare example of Northern Plains pictographic art, and the mid-range photo of White Bull on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River is very evocative of a man in his environment.

Fiske took mostly posed pictures of Indians on the Standing Rock Reservation. They stand in front of artist's backdrops. Few of the shots (just three of 30) show any of the subjects in their true environment. And according to the exhibit catalog, the elaborate clothing the Lakota wear is a mix of traditional and non-traditional.

But unlike his better-known contemporary, Edward Curtis, an outsider whose photos have been questioned for exhibiting a questionable romanticism about a supposedly dying race, Fiske grew up with American Indians in North Dakota. His photos have more of a documentary feeling.

Kim Apicella, assistant to the gallery director, who previewed the portfolios for Indian Country Today, said she felt Fiske's intention was historical documentation. She said he probably knew that few photographers in the early 1900s were taking pictures of Indians, although he was aware of Curtis and may have met him.

According to the catalog biography by Frank Vyrzalek, Fiske came to Fort Yates, N.D., as a child in 1889, when his father was posted there as a soldier.

As a teenager, he came to operate the military post photo studio. After the post was closed in 1903, he started his own studio in Bismarck before returning to Fort Yates in 1905. All the dated photos in the two portfolios were taken in the first decade of the 20th century.

Fiske in later life wrote two books about the Sioux and worked as a newspaper editor before dying in 1952. He and his wife, Angela Cournoyer, also produced plays with Indian themes, featuring members of the SRST in at least one cast.

According to a catalog essay by Rod Slemmons on Fiske's work, the photographer's familiarity with the Indians he grew up around "undoubtedly informed Fiske's style as a photographer." He realized his subjects more as actual people than as representatives of a "vanishing race."

Slemmons calls Fiske's strength his "straightforward clarity," with sharp foci and dramatic lighting that show a wealth of detail. By contrast, Curtis used a "pictorialist" style of "soft-focus lenses, dramatic close-ups, flattened tonal range, backgrounds either abstractly textured or without detail, and angular composition."

Yet Fiske may have seen some of Curtis' proofs when he came to Standing Rock in 1905, and absorbed some of his style, Slemmons said.

The writer concludes that Fiske's style falls somewhat between Curtis and true documentarians. "His work is neither self-consciously sentimental and pretty, nor is it coldly analytical."

More than half of the portfolio photos feature individual Indians. Four are family groups, and three are exteriors. One shows two Indians in cowboy finery, and another shows two Lakota men holding up an eagle killed by one of them.

The two portfolios were originally published in 1983 by the North Dakota Heritage Foundation Inc., in an edition of 300 prints and five artist's proof sets. The publishers chose from more than 6,000 Fiske negatives and 1,000 original prints in the collection of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Brenda Beal, gallery director, mounted the exhibit at Prairie Edge. Both individual prints and artist's proofs are available for sale.