University of Rochester

Parallax Effects: Representations of Native Americans Then and Now

February 25, 2011

Humanities Project Explores the Role of Historical Images

Documentaries, photographs, and literature have helped shape the public's perceptions of Native Americans throughout history. Whether romantic or primitive, the two most common stereotypes of the 19th century have become so powerful that scholars say some people have difficulty seeing indigenous people as anything else. But do these images offer insights into native people and cultures, or do they mostly reflect the views of the people who produce them?

"You either have people looking uncritically at photographs taken of Native Americans in their traditional clothing that buy into 'Oh, look at these natives, too bad they don't look like that anymore,' or you have people saying 'this was a staged photo and a fraud'," said Janet Berlo, professor of art history and visual cultural studies, whose research focuses on Native North American studies.

Berlo, along with Eleana Kim, assistant professor of anthropology, are the organizers of "Parallax Effects: Representations of Native North Americans Then and Now," a series of events in March that encourages the Rochester community to reexamine the role of Native North Americans beyond the traditional stereotypes.

Through lectures, presentations, and films at the University and George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, Berlo and Kim hope to create a conversation that will help rethink the meaning of historical images of Native American. Coined by anthropologist Faye Ginsburg (NYU), the term parallax effects refers to the numerous ways culture can be represented from different points of view. "We hope to show how people from different historical periods and cultural contexts interpret these images in different ways. It's not as if there is just one version of culture, so we need to include every perspective in the discussion," said Kim.

According to Berlo, Europeans have written and produced images about Native Americans and their cultures, but until recently the Native American perspective has been largely left out of the conversation. Berlo and Kim point to photographer Edward Curtis as the inspiration for the project. Over the years, the American photographer has been praised for his portraits of Native Americans in the early 20th century as well as criticized for reinforcing stereotypes of the time. By using Curtis as a point of reference, the project will look at both historical representations as well as to more contemporary representations by Native Americans now presenting themselves to the world.

Sponsored by the University's Humanities Project, an interdepartmental endeavor designed to support work by Rochester faculty in all fields of humanistic inquiry, the project runs from March 2 to April 10. Many of the events are free and open to the public. For details, visit or e-mail Carlie Fishgold at

Highlights of Parallax Effects Include:

Theatres of Memory: New Perspectives on Edward Curtis's The North American Indian
This art exhibition opens on March 2 and runs through April 6.
Rare Books and Special Collections Library, Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester River Campus

Film Screening and Roundtable Discussion with Joe Horse-Capture (Minneapolis Institute of Art)
March 2, 3:30 6:30 p.m.
Rare Books and Special Collections Library, Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester River Campus.

New Directions in Aboriginal Canadian Experimental Video
March 24, 4 p.m.
Gamble Room, Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester River Campus
Led by anthropologist Kristin Dowell '99, the talk will provide a unique opportunity to see several short films by filmmakers Kevin Burton and Helen Haig-Brown, rising stars in Aboriginal media in Canada whose cutting-edge work is breaking new cinematic ground. The talk will be followed by a Q&A and reception. The event is free and open to the public.

In the Land of the Head Hunters: The Cinema of Edward Curtis as a Document of Cultural Encounter
March 28, 4 p.m.
Welles-Brown Room, Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester River Campus
Anthropologist Aaron Glass will discuss the recent restoration of the Edward S. Curtis silent film In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914).
The presentation will feature clips from the newly restored film and recent performances that include the original musical score. The talk will be followed by a Q&A and reception. The event is free and open to the public.

Auto Immune Response
April 10, 2 p.m., Curtis Theatre, George Eastman House, Rochester, N.Y.
Navajo photographer Will Wilson will present an artist's talk about his series of artworks entitled Auto Immune Response. The talk will be followed by a Q&A.

*This event is free for faculty and staff of the University of Rochester, Friends of Ganondagan, and members of George Eastman House. For the general public, it is free with museum admission ($12 for adults, $5 for students).