What is a Visual Anthropologist? Idaho Experience: Behind the Stories

Smithsonian Institution Anthropologist Emeritus Joanna Scherer, who was featured in Idaho Experience's recent documentary “Out of the Shadows,” is an expert in a field you may not have heard of: visual anthropology.

“Visual anthropologists use films and still pictures to try to understand something about humans that you can't get from words,” Scherer told Idaho Experience producer Marcia Franklin.

LEFT: Shoshotse and his wife Jemaima Deepwater, both Bannock. (National Archives and Records Administration, Still Picture Branch, 73-SEI-122.) RIGHT: Minnie Camas Willie, a Weiser-Shoshone from the Boise Valley. (National Archives and Records Administration, Still Picture Branch, 75-SEI-8.) TOP: Visual anthropologist Joanna Scherer examines glass-plate negatives made by Pocatello, Idaho, photographer Benedicte Wrensted in the late 1800s and early 1900s. (Marcia Franklin, Idaho Public Television.)

Scherer, a photographs and illustrations researcher for the Smithsonian Institution's Handbook of North American Indians, was the first person to identify Benedicte Wrensted, a Danish woman who lived in Pocatello from 1895 to 1912, as the photographer of nearly 150 images of Shoshone-Bannock Indians.

Visual anthropologist Joanna Scherer at the Smithsonian Institution. (Marcia Franklin, Idaho Public Television.)
Wrensted's original glass-plate negatives reside in the National Archives and Records Administration's Still Photographs Division in Washington, D.C. In the image on the left are Logan Appenay and his son Asa, both Bannock, circa 1905. Logan Appenay also appears in the image on the right, circa 1905, wearing his Grass Dance regalia. (Marcia Franklin, Idaho Public Television.)
LEFT: Benedicte Wrensted. RIGHT: Wrensted learned photography in her native Denmark before immigrating to the United States at age 35. She opened this studio on Cleveland Avenue in Pocatello, Idaho, in 1895. (Both images courtesy Shaun Crha.)

The photos, some of which had become iconic because they were used in so many ways, including in exhibits and on the cover of a government phone book, were previously assumed to have been taken by a man.

LEFT: Cover of the July 1991 telephone directory for the National Archives and Records Administration. RIGHT: The image appeared in the 1982 calendar of events for the Hunter Museum of Art; note that, at the time, the individuals pictured, the photographer, the location, and the date were unknown. Pictured are members of the Edmo family, circa 1898. The original Wrensted photograph appears below.
Standing is Jack Edmo, with Lizzie Randall Edmo holding son Eugene, and daughters Helen (far left) and Bessie (back) circa 1898. The Edmos were a prominent ranching family near Pocatello, and Wrensted photographed them numerous times over the years. (National Archives and Records Administration, Still Picture Branch, 75-SEI-93.)
LEFT: Logan Appenay, a Bannock, is dressed in his Grass Dance attire. Circa 1906. He was one of many local residents who paid Pocatello, Idaho, photographer Benedicte Wrensted for a formal studio portrait. (National Archives and Records Administration, Still Picture Branch, 75-SEI-59.) RIGHT Wrensted's image of Logan Appenay appeared in a display at the National Archives.

Through detailed analysis of the photos, including studying the backdrops, props, lighting, and patterns of retouching, Scherer was able to identify the hallmarks of a Wrensted photo. But she went further, examining the outfits in the images to try and learn more about Shoshone-Bannock culture at the time. She also asked Bonnie Wuttunee-Wadsworth, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, to take the photos to tribal elders to see if they could identify the individuals in them.

“Photographs are of people, and people belong to families, and they deserve to be identified,” Scherer told Franklin.

Visual anthropologist Joanna Scherer with Shoshone-Bannock tribal member Bonnie Wuttunee-Wadsworth, who took the Wrensted images to Shoshone-Bannock tribal elders in the 1990s to try to identify those pictured in the photographs. According to Scherer, 80 percent of the individuals in the images have been identified as of 2019. (Courtesy Joanna Scherer.)

Scherer wrote a book about Benedicte Wrensted titled A Danish Photographer of Idaho Indians: Benedicte Wrenstedpublished by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2006. For “exemplary use” of photographs in a book, the Society for Visual Anthropology awarded Joanna Scherer the John Collier, Jr. Award for Still Photography in 2008.

Idaho Public Television videographer Aaron Kunz films visual anthropologist Joanna Scherer at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., for the Idaho Experience documentary "Out of the Shadows." (Marcia Franklin, Idaho Public Television.)

Read more about the field of visual anthropology here: societyforvisualanthropology.org/about

Below are Wrensted images that remain unidentified. Perhaps you can help identify the individuals in the photographs?

The Sho-Ban men in this 1897 photograph remain unidentified. (National Archives and Records Administration, Still Picture Branch, 75-SEI-64.)
Wrensted made this photograph of a still-unidentified Sho-Ban man wearing an otter fur sash, a hair roach, and strips of cloth and ermine tied to his arms. Hanging from his left side are notched feathers. Circa 1898. (National Archives and Records Administration, Still Picture Branch, 75-SEI-134.)

© 2019 Idaho Public Television, www.idahoptv.org. Images copyright as credited.

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