The trajectory of my work has always arced toward Americana and the understanding of the American “experience.” Within groups I sought to show the varying faces of American minority, and deconstruct the American Dream. With my latest body of work, The People of Klamath, I was commissioned to make portraits of tribal members of the Klamath, Modoc and Pit River Paiute people in Klamath Falls, Oregon. My interaction with the tribal members in creation of this work was one of the most enlightening experiences I've ever had. Indeed in all of my photo projects while I reference the idea of the American Dream through the past, I am in reality using the working process as a bridge to empathize with my subjects. By connecting with them, I am able to have a true understanding of the dynamics of the American experience.
To begin with, I met the tribal director of mental health at an ancestral relay run. Her idea was that her people would run to the Modoc stronghold in Lava Beds National Monument, the scene of the famous battle against the US Army, and keep running a total of almost 80 miles. I originally wanted to photograph some of the tribe, but thought I should show some empathy and respect to their past ancestors and present members. I ran 15 miles non-stop that day, in sandals. The respect and admiration opened them to me and we discussed a project using my tintypes. A couple of months later I was contacted to start my work.
The purpose of my commission was to document the tribe using the historical process of tintype. It would serve 2 purposes, as a way to assist in the mental health of the tribal member by “repurposing” their self image in a historical context and showing them their own beauty within. What I found when I worked with the Klamath, were a beaten people, the product of the United States government’s genocide program on Native Americans. However, the strength of their race was also very much evident, their refusal to lay down as a people subject to some of the worse crimes against humanity, perpetrated by a nation that claimed to be “for the people.” I experienced many stories of sadness, abuse, racism and murder as we sat in a Talking Circle, their traditional way of sharing a voice in the community. I looked into their eyes and listened to their words of pain and sorrow, but what I saw layered behind this was their core, a strong and beautiful people.
In my tintypes, I sought to understand the person before me, layered within a historical context, within a person of color context, within an American context and within a mirror context. The later of the contexts, was that the tintype is a mirror image, so I liked the idea that conceptually the viewer “embodies” the subject and in essence becomes the subject and in doing so empathizes with them. It was my hope that this would be the case and I continue to push the idea.
By Ed Drew
Drew was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and joined the military in 1999 2 days after his 18th birthday. He has served for 6 years in the active duty Air Force and transferred to the California Air National Guard where he currently serves as a Staff Sergeant and helicopter gunner on Combat Search and Rescue helicopters stationed in Moffett Field, near Mountain View, California. He is also a recent graduate of San Francisco Art Institute where he received a BFA majoring in Sculptor and minoring in Photography.
On Thursday, September 3, Ed Drew will give a presentation at the California Historical Society titled "Historic Techniques: History Through Tintypes". Learn More.