Ever held up a mirror to a mirror, getting that sort of infinity effect - reflected images spanning through time?
There's a little of that going on in "Encountering Cultures," the photographic series by Tom Jones, now at Overture Center's James Watrous Gallery. Except here the mirrors are cameras, and what's in the lens - contemporary whites dressed up as Native Americans - is meant to reflect what both groups see in each other and in themselves.
The collection was shot at historic reenactments of the French fur trade era called Rendezvous. Participants come from all over the country to set up camp, display furs, and adopt elements of what they believe is a Native American lifestyle. They assiduously rely on old photographs - often stereotypical - to "authentically" dress the part.
Jones, an assistant professor of photography at UW and member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, turns the camera around by photographing the reenactors.
Walking in, I thought of the Indian Guides, a scout-like YMCA program I'd been in as a kid, complete with feathers on our heads and war paint on our faces. I'm also an alum of Illinois, where Chief Illiniwek danced at halftime. I once thought such things weren't really racist, yet eventually I came to understand that they are. So I steeled myself, a bit defensive. Would this be an exercise in white guilt?
Refreshingly, the answer is no. The 13 beautiful, life-size color photographs feel honest, respectful and, if anything, benign. They cast no judgment, though Jones wittily shoots the reenactors in solitary, almost heroic poses, in full regalia with serious expressions, reminiscent of the "noble savage" treatment.
In so doing, he shows us the meticulous detail of their dress, over which they have clearly labored. We can also see in their eyes that they're sincere. Jones says he learned through doing the project that many reenactors have Indian ancestry, and his photos appear to show an understanding that his subjects wish to honor, not offend, Native Americans. He describes them as "people playing Indian," but, he says, "they come at this with a good heart."
I cringed at a reenactor's Indian name - Joe Makes Trouble - as well as how silly some of them look. One wears a top hat with feathers, looking half Indian, half chimney sweep. But as a white man having looked at this series of mirrors - an Indian's photographs of white people dressing up as Indians, based on photos of Indians taken by white people - I'm struck by the idea that no one can say exactly what anyone's reaction will be. Ultimately, the exhibit is as neutral as its title.