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EYE OF THE BEHOLDER #1 OCTOBER '08: History

Richard Tighe Harris family image, Juneau, 1885.

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Elizabeth James, Assistant Professor of History, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Alaska Anchorage

While the precise circumstances of the photograph are unknown, it is clear that this picture was not a casual candid shot.  Camera exposure time in 1889 was slow; setting up the equipment and scene also took time.  This event was carefully planned.  The family prepared in their finery, including corsets and hats.  They are formally arranged and posed.  Yet this photograph is not merely a family portrait; their collective image comprises less than one-fourth of the entire picture.  The house is more prominent, as is the landscape of the emerging town of Juneau behind them.  The mounting of the photograph also hints at the esteem with which someone held the picture.

The photograph deliberately conveys a sense of “civilization” as nineteenth century Anglo-Americans understood the term.  Juneau is not a wild frontier in the picture.  Tlingit women dress as any proper Victorian ladies of the age, and the children are similarly outfitted.  The house is a conventional home that might be found in any other city in the United States.  The town’s expanse and ongoing construction in the background promise a strong and rewarding future.

As carefully planned as these few seconds in time and place may have been, the image nonetheless creates at least as many questions as it answers.  What were the daily routines of these individuals?  What were the lives of these Native women like?  What of the mixed-blood children?  What scenes lay in front of the family?  Where was the photo originally displayed?

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