On a Fall day in 1899 Minnie Richards, a young Puyallup woman sat for a series of photographs at the studio of Tacoma photographer Albert C. Carpenter. Surprisingly little is known about either the image maker or the model but on that day they created a set of striking ethnographic documents. Beyond that, the portrait of Minnie is a remarkable, deeply evocative work of art that seems to both hide and tell a story all its own.
Albert Carpenter’s photographic studio was in the Collier-Hardenberg Building at 915 Broadway across the street from the massive Tacoma Theater. Both buildings were finished just as Washington was becoming a state in 1889 but Carpenter did not arrive with his camera equipment in Tacoma until 1892. Albert was from Kansas City where he learned the modern skills of a photographer in his late 30’s. First with a partner and then on his own, he operated a portrait studio on Main Street from 1885 until deciding to move west in 1891. Born the year after the boundary between Canada and the Oregon Country was established in 1846, Carpenter was middle age when he began making pictures in Tacoma.
When Albert Carpenter set up a studio (and residence) in the busy theatre district Tacoma had several professional image makers and studio photographers operating along Pacific Avenue, near the Tacoma Hotel on A Street and surrounding the NP passenger depot at 15th and Jefferson. Several professional and fine art photographers also operated in the city’s growing Japantown. He was going into a competitive business and his complicated personal history reflects a bumpy ride at times. In the U.S. Census of 1900, Albert’s profession was listed as photographer but at the turn of the century his studio was closed and he was living at the YMCA.
Over the next few years Carpenter seems to have found peace as an itinerant cameraman with no business listing but several associations with artists, galleries and sponsorship from Gilbert Holt owner of the respected Holt Art Company back in the entertainment district. By 1908 he was listed as a photographer at the Holt Art Company and was living in the former Northern Pacific Land Office then called the Sylvan House. See THE FIRST. The next year, at 52 years old, he married Caroline, who he always called Carrie, and together they operated a series of fine art galleries in Tacoma including American Art Company that they started in 1918. Albert and Carrie were living at the Meadow Park Golf course when he died in May 1927 at 79 years old.
But back to that year before the 20th Century arrived and that photographic session with young Minnie Richards. Earlier that year, Albert had made a portrait of a renown
Nisqually basket maker named Si-a-gut at the request of Judge James Wickersham. During the earlier 1890’s Carpenter made a number of notable landscapes around Tacoma and had a large number of formal portrait sittings but it was in his last year of keeping a studio that he began photographing local natives with particular intensity.
How it was that the young Puyallup woman was invited to sit for the photographs is not known but it is obvious that she prepared thoughtfully for the sitting. In the standing full length photo she is displaying a wealth of cultural treasure- a richly woven shoulder basket slung over her long robe and a soft beaded figure bag at her front. Against an almost comically flat, painted theatrical screen her posture and natural beauty are dimensional and seem to float within the picture.
The great mystery and wonder of the Carpenter images taken of Minnie Richards however are captured in the close portrait where her gloriously beaded collar and headpiece frame her calm gaze. There is a sense of belonging in her dark eyes like she is looking out from one time and place into another, from one century to the next. The 20th Century was just the beginning of the Indian school era and Minnie was probably a student at the Cushman School in Tacoma where native children from as far away as Alaska were sent to live apart from their families. At the Cushman Indian School the Lashootseed language was forbidden among students, socially important potlatches were considered pagan rituals and contact with grandparents and elders was discouraged or prevented entirely. Minnie’s world was probably a weave of the lessons in the classroom at Cushman School tangled with the memories and stories her family and people told, the food and gifts they shared and the familiar places they knew to be important. Her dress was all about that when Albert Carpenter made the photographs
Such a complicated portrait.