by Troy Jollimore with photos by Byron Wolfe
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Troy Jollimore’s essay ”Some Version of the Same River” from our Fall 2014 issue.
In September 2012, photographer Byron Wolfe backpacked into Deer Creek, in northern California, carrying a heavy load of photographic gear. Accompanying him were myself, my girlfriend Heather Altfeld, Dave Nopel, a local historian and naturalist, and Dave’s dog, Mindy. We were looking for a particular spot on the creek, where Ishi, the so-called “last wild Indian in America,” had spent much time before his emergence from the woods; the spot where he had been photographed in 1914 when, after three years of living in the Bay Area, Ishi was convinced to return by the anthropologists who had become his friends.
Alfred Kroeber, Saxton Pope, and the other scientists and academics who accompanied Ishi back to this spot in 1914 wanted pictures of him in his “natural” setting, doing the things he once did as a matter of daily life: fishing with a spear, hunting with a bow, making fire—an Indian in the wild, being a wild Indian, as it were.
Byron wanted to find the exact sites where the original photographs were taken, and take new, contemporary photographs of those places. This, as it turned out, was not easy, partly because the 1914 photographs did not contain a great deal of useful geographical information: they tended to fill up as much of the frame as they could with the figure of Ishi himself, so that very little of the background was included. The person or persons behind the camera showed little interest in drawing back to take a picture that set Ishi in the context of a larger landscape. This, as Byron pointed out, is both interesting and odd, given how arduous reaching the site was and how difficult it was to convince Ishi to undertake the trip in the first place. Why bother making such a difficult trip if you weren’t going to photograph the landscape too? The 1914 pictures could have been taken almost anywhere; there were surely sites on the UC Berkeley campus, within an easy walk of Ishi’s new home, that could have served as well.
Several of the 1914 photographs were published not long after Ishi’s death, in an article about his archery techniques. The author of that article, Saxton Pope, was a San Francisco doctor and archery enthusiast who provided Ishi with medical care, became his student in the art of bow hunting, and grew to be his close friend. Some of the pictures were also included in Theodora Kroeber’s popular account of Ishi’s life, Ishi in Two Worlds, first published in 1961. Run the name “Ishi” through an Internet search engine and immediately some of these photographs will come up: snapshots of Ishi dressed in a loincloth, swimming in the creek, or crouching before a boulder. (The loincloth was worn at the insistence of the anthropologists, who wanted the pictures to look authentically primitive or, rather, wanted Ishi to look authentically primitive in the pictures. During most of the trip, when Ishi was not being photographed, he was dressed in his Bay Area street clothes.)
After some searching, Byron managed to find the spots where the 1914 photographs had been taken. Although a century had passed, the larger rocks and many of the trees were still there. The water was still there, but the creek itself had moved and its banks were considerably lower, meaning that some of the rephotographs could not be taken from precisely the same place as the originals. As Rebecca Solnit has written, “you can’t make the same photograph twice, though you can return to some version of the same river”—a claim that turned out to be more or less literally true in this case.¹
Byron, however, had no desire to “make the same photograph twice.” Although he wanted to find the exact sites and retake the photographs at the same time of day, he also wanted his photographs to include the landscape that surrounded the original scenes, thus providing considerably more information than the original photographs had. (One of the resulting images is a very wide panorama of Deer Creek itself, into which Byron has inserted several 1914 images of Ishi fishing and swimming.) Byron was interested in showing what had changed in the decades that had intervened between the two acts of photography, and also in posing questions about the original photographers’ intentions and choices, what they thought they were gaining in choosing to make their pictures at these particular sites, whether and in what sense they took the results to be “authentic” portraits of Ishi’s pre-1911 life, and what they wanted people to find in, and take away from, the pictures they took.
Watching Byron work—as he searched for the precise original vantage from which a particular shot had been made, tried to get the camera angle precisely right, and waited for the sun to reach the appropriate point in the sky—got me thinking about patience and art, and about the relation between photography and time. A certain consciousness of time is deeply programmed into his artistic process. The right time of year, the right time of day, the right light, the right tone: all these things are necessary to the creation of the work, and they all come around again if you wait long enough. Perhaps thinking of time in this way is one way of getting a little closer to Ishi’s own worldview, since the tendency to see time as linear and progressive is largely an artifact of the industrialized West. Native Americans, and indigenous people in general, have often expressed conceptions of time in terms of repeating cycles rather than as continuous forward motion.
One of Ishi’s most precious possessions in his later years was a watch, which he wore regularly but did not keep wound. It didn’t seem to matter to Ishi, that is, that the watch told the correct time, that it was connected with temporal reality. He didn’t seem to care whether it fulfilled the function that we think of as the very reason for which a watch exists. For whatever reason—because it represented his new life in the modern world, because it was a gift from a friend, or simply because it was beautiful—he apparently liked having it on his wrist.
Returning to “some version of the same river” means one thing when the river is a river. It means something different, perhaps, when the subject of the original photographs was not a landscape but a person. It means something still different, and poignant, when that person is made to represent a supposed historical vanishing point, the narrow final tip of a long historical shadow cast by an entire people who are conceived to be disappearing.
All artwork by Byron Wolfe, digital inkjet prints, various sizes up to 120″ in length. Page 37: Traces of “Ishi drying a fire drill” in Deer Creek Canyon, May 1914 and September 2012; pages 38–39: Perched atop 15 million-year-old “Lovejoy Basalt”; Ishi, demonstrating how to hunt salmon in Deer Creek. Summer 1914 and Autumn 2012; page 41: “Ishi loved his bow as he loved nothing else in his possession.” – his friend, Saxton T. Pope, in an academic journal, 1918. September, 2012; page 43: Ishi’s storage cave, a site of conflict and hardship, isolated and unchanged for a century. September, 2011; page 45: After the shooting demonstration, only 100 meters from their camp, Autumn 2012 and Summer 1914. Inset photographs courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of California.
1 From Rebecca Solnit, from Klett, Solnit, and Wolfe, Yosemite in Time: Ice Ages, Tree Clocks, Ghost Rivers (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2005), p. 19.