Emily Voelker

Emily Voelker received her Ph.D. in History of Art & Architecture at Boston University in 2017 and is the former Estrellita & Yousuf Karsh Assistant Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She is a specialist in the history of photography and art and visual culture of the long nineteenth century, with particular focus in transatlantic exchange and indigenous representation. Postdoctoral fellowships at the Smithsonian Institution and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will support the transformation of her dissertation into a book manuscript. The project will expand upon the dissertation by further exploring the continued lives and salience of these historical photographs in the contemporary Native communities represented within them. 

From Both Sides of the Lens: Anthropology, Native Experience & Photographs of American Indians in French Exhibitions, 1870-1890
(Dissertation, Boston University, 2017)

“From Both Sides of the Lens” considers photographs of American Indians in Parisian exhibitions between 1870 and 1890 as part of a mobile and dynamic visual culture in the larger Atlantic World and the embodiment of performative cross-cultural encounters. The project analyzes both western American survey photographs disseminated abroad, as well as pictures of Native performers taken in the French capital. The study ranges from John K. Hillers’s output for John Wesley Powell and William Henry Jackson’s work for Ferdinand V. Hayden to the photographic albums of Prince Roland Bonaparte. Active in French scientific circles, Bonaparte photographed Plains Indians in 1880s Paris. Working within national variants of the developing field of anthropology, these photographers and their project directors transmitted pictures transnationally in order to present their respective nations as scientific and political powers and showcase the American Indian as a distinct figure of national patrimony. Composed of four case studies based on exhibitions however, the study challenges imperialist readings grounded solely on the original intentions of the objects’ producers. Instead, a transcultural perspective examines American Indian agendas and circumstances in these photographic exchanges. The dissertation also traces the changing meaning of these pictures over time.

The Palmquist award provided Voelker with the funds to travel to New Mexico and Arizona in order to better understand the Hopi perspective by: researching in the archives of the Palace of the Governors Archives; listening to all Hopi-related materials in the American Indian Oral History Recordings at the Center for Southwest Research; and meeting with the Director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office.

Major J.W. Powell's explorations. Photo by John Hillers. Bibliothèque nationale de France.