Photographer Brian Christopher captures an ancient people in modern images

Camas resident will exhibit his photographs of Native American culture this month

A young member of The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs helps to land a salmon caught by her younger brother. Photographer Brian Christopher has spent two years capturing images of Native Americans at work and play, which will be on display at the Second Story Gallery in Camas.

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“I love this project. When I work on it, time disappears.” — Brian Christopher

If you go

“Indian Country: Modern Images of an Ancient People” runs Friday, June 6 to 27 in the Second Story Gallery at the Camas Public Library, 625 N.E. Fourth Ave.

There will be an artist reception this Friday from 5 to 8 p.m. with recorded Native American music. The gallery’s website is www.secondstoryga... and photographer Brian Christopher’s blog is throughwhiteeyes.tumblr.com.

Brian Christopher has always been able to blend in with his surroundings.

At more than six feet tall, that is no easy accomplishment.

But it isn’t something he tried to do, it’s instinctive, which helps the photojournalist capture scenes as they unfold.

“I was born a documentary photographer,” Christopher, 53, said. “Despite my size, I can blend in and seem invisible.”

Christopher, a communications consultant, has spent much of his free time during the last two years capturing images of Native American tribes and culture in Oregon and Washington.

His work will be displayed in the Camas Public Library’s Second Story Gallery this month.

“Indian Country: Modern Images of an Ancient People,” will include photographs of ritual dances, salmon fishing along the banks of the Columbia and Klickitat rivers and basket weaving, all captured in a rich sepia tone.

“I am a documentarian and always have been,” Christopher said. “My photos capture little images of ‘this is where they are now.’ They haven’t vanished and are not forgotten.”

Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery marked the beginning of America’s century of Westward expansion, which led to a sweeping effort to eradicate Northwest Native American culture and its people.

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At a well-attended gathering of local tribes at Clark College in November 2013, a lone dancer is an “echo of the past.”

During this time, children were often sent away to English-only speaking schools and punished if they spoke in their native tongue. Tribes were grouped together on reservations in often unfamiliar areas and with rival groups. As a result, Native people were widely regarded in American culture as the “vanishing race.”

However, Christopher seeks to tell the story of a people who have not vanished, but have re-emerged in the 21st century, rooted in the past but also embracing the future.

The tones and range of the photographs are meant to emulate the printing style of Edward S. Curtis, a Seattle photographer who produced images of the few Native Americans left in the Seattle area during the early to mid 20th century.

Curtis, the inspiration behind Christopher’s work, began creating photographs of Native Americans in the early 1900s, including Angeline, the daughter of Chief Seattle. He worked with several experts, documenting tribes throughout the northwest and the southwest. The finale of the 30-year project was a 20-volume set of books.

A major difference in the photographs of Curtis and Christopher is that Curtis posed his subjects to re-create scenes, while Christopher prefers to capture moments as they occur.

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Several generations of tribal members participate in a pow wow in downtown Portland in September 2012.

“There is a lot of discussion about the authenticity of the images of Curtis’ work,” Christopher said. “I have strived to maintain a journalistic integrity to my images while retaining a feel for the subject matter. Even though the Native people are depicted in so-called ‘traditional’ scenarios, almost every one features some small indication of change to their culture — like an exit sign in a longhouse ­— which was brought about by interaction with the Europeans.”

Christopher has been interested in Native cultures for most of his adult life. After moving to the Northwest in 2005, he was surprised to see “very few” public displays of Native people.

“They were here for more than 10,000 years before Lewis and Clark,” he said. “The mouth of the Washougal River was a huge gathering area and the Camas lily was a native foodstuff. I thought there has to be something here beyond the names. There are a lot of layers to the history of this area. But so much of the people that once lived here has disappeared. I wanted to capture what still remains.”

Christopher met with leaders of the Grande Ronde and Yakima Nation and explained that he wanted to document people in their daily lives. He received a positive reception.

However, it often took many hours or even days of just sitting and observing their fishing camps before he used his camera.

“Some cultures are very wary of outsiders,” he said. “I have photographed the Amish and they are very similar. You just have to be patient. You can tell in the faces of the subjects when they no longer see you.”

During the two years he has worked on this project, Christopher has taken more than 3,000 photographs. He edited that down to 34 photographs for the upcoming exhibit.

“I don’t think I was ready for a project like this earlier in my career,” he said. “The individual photos that tell the story are enough to keep me going until the next visit. I don’t need immediate feedback to maintain my enthusiasm.”

In addition to the photographs, Christopher’s exhibit will include a display which showcases how Native culture has been depicted in postcards, books and pamphlets during the last 100 years.

Although it has taken a significant amount of time, Christopher continues to be fascinated with documenting a culture that many once believed was eradicated.

“I love this project,” he said. “When I work on it, time disappears. I feel like I’m doing something that actually means something. I will keep working, keep documenting and keep learning more.”

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