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Portrait collection records history of a living culture

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EAST LANSING, Mich. - A family photo album can tell the history of a family through the faces of its relatives, past and present.

Collections of portraits, taken at a specific point and place in time, can be the global family album that tells the history of a country or a people by seeing the faces and the clothing of those who came before us.

Creating that kind of historical album was the aspiration of portrait photographer Doug Elbinger when he, with the help of the Michigan State University Museum, created a portfolio of pow wow portraits more than a decade ago that continues to circulate through the museum's traveling exhibition service (

Elbinger's fascination with photography began at age 10, when he saw a book of Civil War portraits by famed photographer Mathew B. Brady. By high school, Elbinger discovered that the camera could take him places and introduce him to people he might not otherwise meet.

''By using connections, I got onstage with the Beatles when I was 16 [in 1966]. Then about two weeks later, it was Labor Day; I got up close and personal with Lyndon Johnson,'' Elbinger said. From then on, he discovered that ''if I put a camera around my neck, I could go anywhere I wanted.''

It was while working at the Library of Congress that Elbinger discovered something that created a passion in him for a different kind of project. He stumbled across the work of Nebraska photographer Herman Heyn, who among other work made portraits of people at the Indian Congress of 1898 in Omaha, Neb.

The Indian Congress, part of the Trans-Mississippi International Exposition (World's Fair), drew more than 500 participants representing 35 tribes. With $45,000 in federal funding, it was in part intended to showcase what was considered by some a fading culture. An official photographer on hand - F.A. Rinehart - also did a series of portraits, but it was the work of Herman Heyn that attracted Elbinger.

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''I found this collection. ... It was what I would call master craftsmanship, knowing the light and the film, knowing the processes. To get so many [images] and so consistently good, I thought it was very remarkable.''

This work, taking photos of people in traditional ceremonial or dance regalia, Elbinger found much different than the more famous images of Edward S. Curtis.

''Curtis is more romantic,'' Elbinger said, comparing to Heyn's photos. ''These are way different; these are real journalism and photography. Sharp, clear, detailed.''

And so evolved the idea of a project taking portraits at a modern-day pow wow - because after 100 years the culture has not ''faded away'' - and to record that moment in history with the same casual dignity that Elbinger found in Heyn's earlier portraits.

The project merged nicely with a pow wow hosted by MSU and its Indian faculty and staff members at East Lansing, near Elbinger's home in Okemos.

The MSU Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate institution with a long history of working with Indian communities and with many supporting collections, helped to make the arrangements with dancers at the pow wow and coordinated with the MSU Native American Institute, the Nokomis Learning Center and the National Museum of the American Indian. The National Endowment of the Arts helped to fund the project.

Elbinger took portraits throughout the day, with dancers arriving and posing after signing releases that also indicated that the images would not be used for commercial purposes. Sometimes he photographed individuals, sometimes families. (He notes for those attending pow wows that simply snapping photos of dancers without getting permission is considered rude.)

He had many willing volunteers, Elbinger said. As dancers used to performing, the photographic subjects were comfortable with the camera. ''It's historic, it's portraiture, it's willing subjects with a very positive attitude for doing it, and I think it shows in the pictures.''