Gary Auerbach


From july 13 to August 11 2002

Exhibition Essay

Images Made to Last

Platinum Portraits of Native Americans by Gary Auerbach

By Maricia Battle

Curator, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

While it is difficult to change careers in mid-path, we are appreciative because it brought Gary Auerbach to photography, an art form he both treasures and for which has true passion. Before becoming a photographer, Auerbach was a chiropractic doctor. As a result of a hand injury in 1989, Auerbach put aside his chiropractic practice, and turned his attention full time to what had before been an earnest hobby.

His work with cameras in his practice gave him a natural familiarity with both large format cameras and film characteristics, and his compassion for the human subject, made portraiture a natural progression. He uses an 8x10 and an 11x14 view cameras, not your average large format equipment. But what further distinguishes him from other photographers is his technique of contact printing the image with platinum metal salts, which increases their tactile and textural luster while creating an important archival photographic record.

American Indians, an integral part of American history, have been represented in the works of many photographers since the dawn of photography. James E. McClees, with Julian Vannerson and Samuel Cohner, produced some of the earliest Native American images in studios in Washington, DC in the late 1850s, later joined by the works of Charles Milton Bell. Most of this early work consisted of staged images of American Indian dignitaries during their visits to the Capitol. In the 1890s, John Hillers and John Grabill produced some of the first survey images of American Indians in their own environment. It was not until the turn of the century that the most recognized and celebrated of all the photographers, Edward S. Curtis, begin his thirty-year project of photographing Native Americans in natural settings.

Our curiosity about others and ourselves has always been an underlying issue in most documentary photography. In light of recent events, that need to know has resurfaced with a vengeance. Unlike earlier anthropological studies, Curtis seemed able to rise above the physical examination of the American Indian culture to get inside the soul of the people. While not an insider, his camera focused on the individuality and the essential humanity of his Native America subjects.

The same can be said of Gary Auerbach's images. He captures the dignity and strength of the Native American culture. He allows the subject to get comfortable, to know the lens and the eye of the camera in a way that is clearly non-threatening. It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and you know from looking at these images, that the individuals photographed are at ease with both the photographer and the camera. This is not an easy undertaking, given the private nature of the Native Americans. The resulting images are photographs that possess the ancestral qualities Curtis discovered in his subjects - the heart of the people.

With Auerbach’s sensitivity to the Native American culture, permanence is clearly a defining issue. Gary has explored various printing methods, and in the tradition of Curtis, he uses the precious metals, platinum and palladium, to contact print each image. Each of the photographs in this collection is hand-coated with these metals etched into archival watercolor papers, ensuring the permanence of the print for hundreds of years. A by-product of this method is that the photographs have an ethereal quality, with unmatched dimension and depth.

Only time will tell if Auerbach will emulate Curtis’ effort to the degree of producing a thirty-year masterwork of American Indians. I do know he will continue to develop this body of work because it is his passion. And with passion, and expertise, comes what we call, a work of art.

John A. Ware, Director
Amerind Foundation, Inc. Dragoon, Arizona

The Amerind Foundation was established in 1937 by William Shirley Fulton who, in a lifetime of collecting, amassed one of the finest assemblages of American Indian art and material culture in the country. The collections were greatly expanded and their temporal span enlarged by Amerind-sponsored archaeological excavations in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico in the 1940s through 1970s. When the Amerind Museum opened to the public in 1987 (prior to 1987 the collections could be visited only by appointment) the collections were especially strong in the late prehistoric (pre-1540 A.D.) and historic periods (post 1540 to 1900).

When exhibiting and interpreting such historical material, there is always the risk that museum visitors will walk away with the impression that American Indians are part of America’s past but not its present and future. In fact, it has been argued that museums shoulder much of the responsibility for conveying the impression both at home and abroad that Indians died out with the buffalo; that although some Indians may still exist in the Southwest, Oklahoma, and perhaps South Dakota, their languages, world views, belief systems, and most other aspects of their traditional cultures have been lost, except for what museums have managed to preserve.

Contrary to these impressions, there are perhaps as many people who identify themselves as Native Americans today at the dawn of the twenty-first century as there were at the close of the fifteenth century when Europeans first set foot on the shores of the "New World." In other words, despite five centuries of invasion, displacement, marginalization, and the impacts of European-introduced diseases, American Indians are still very much here! In the words of a Zuni friend, "we are here, now, and always."

The photographs of Gary Auerbach, friend and neighbor of Amerind who divides his time between his studio in Tucson and pistachio orchard in Dragoon, are a perfect antidote to the "old Indian things" that occupy museum shelves in anthropological museums across the country. Gary’s splendid platinum photographs show American Indians as they are today: friends, neighbors, doctors, parents, daughters, sons, poets, painters; thoroughly modern Americans with modern interests and concerns, but with a connection to past and tradition that is palpable through the lens of Auerbach’s giant camera.

The Amerind is pleased to bring these images of contemporary Native America to its audience, in both this catalogue and the exhibition of Auerbachs prints at the Fulton-Hayden Memorial Art Gallery at Amerind. We thank Gary Auerbach and his subjects for their vision, Darlene Kryza for her design and Linda Vidal and John Davis at Arizona Lithographers for their production of the catalogue.

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