Prepared to be startled stepping inside the Catherine Valliant Hill Center where a new exhibit by The Talbot Historical Society is being displayed. Catching Shadows is a sampling of the stunning portraiture of Talbot resident and New York fashion photographer Anne Nielsen who wants us to focus on an overlooked part of Eastern Shore’s history, the descendants of Delmarva’s indigenous peoples.
Nielsen’s work upends conventions we have grown accustomed to in studying the history of Native Americans which typically brings to mind the early twentieth century images of Edward Curtis. Those were made in the Western United States and Canada. Anne Nielsen wants us to focus on images of an ignored world living among us on the Shore.
Historians believe that Native Americans first began inhabiting the Mid-Atlantic region 10,000 years ago. By the early 1600’s, there were an estimated 20,000 such natives on the Delmarva Peninsula fishing, farming, and hunting. They grouped themselves into four tribes—the Accohannock, Assateague, Nause-Waiwash, and Pocomoke. Less than 150 years after coming into contact with the English, these tribes were nearly driven into extinction. If not killed outright or by European diseases, those unwilling to be pushed out survived through assimilation into the burgeoning white and African American cultures.
Nielsen has roots on the Shore, living on her family’s farm in Centreville and attending Gunston School, but she spent more of her childhood abroad. Her father was a diplomat, and he was posted to places such as Australia, Canada, and Europe with Nielsen in tow. As a small child, she lived in Norway shortly after World War II ended and remembers hiding in her house as defeated German soldiers were marched past. That upbringing in diplomatic circles may have helped her recognize, understand, and get close to diverse cultures.
After years in the New York fashion and advertising industries, Nielsen came back to Centreville to pursue a different type of photography. No more Nikons and Hasselblads. She was drawn to a ten-pound wooden camera that uses a Voigtländer Petzval lens made during the American Civil War. The type of photography done with this equipment is tintype. In a darkroom, Nielsen pours a flammable substance called collodion onto a glass plate, and very quickly the plate must be exposed through the camera’s eye. Exposure times are determined by Nielsen feeling the warmth of the light falling on the back of her hand and sensing the air around her. Once exposed, she has a few brief minutes to develop the plate into a negative back in her darkroom which is housed inside a trailer pulled along to her shoots by a Toyota pickup truck.
The tintype process with its flat monotones and imperfections gives images a timeless, ethereal look. They have aesthetic properties far removed from the crisp, color saturated images we see on today’s camera phones. The workings of the ancient lenses blur the edges and concentrate the eye on the subject. Used in portraiture, the shafts of random light that flicker across a soft, hazy perspective capture the soul of the sitter. And sitting is what is required. The subject of the portrait must enter into a meditation with the camera for however long it takes to strike a bond. Nielsen believes the random magic that produces tintypes is ideal for portraying the descendants of Delmarva’s indigenous tribes which she believes deserve greater recognition.
Early European settlers described Eastern Shore natives as peaceful and gentle, a people sheltered by the Chesapeake’s wetlands and protected by countless rivers and bogs that act as natural barriers. The tribes’ non-aggressive culture made it easy for the newcomers to appropriate their lands for tobacco plantations. Unlike some other Native American groups further west, Shore natives disappeared into the society overwhelming them without thought being given to reserving lands for tribal use.
Nielsen makes her photographs primarily at powwows where she feels at one with a different people. She struggles to describe it, but her subjects approach life in ways atypical for the Shore. They are quiet, patient, and reflective. While appreciative of others, they are more comfortable living within their culture, choosing to stay behind a line they will not cross. All Nielsen can do is try to catch their shadows.
The Eastern Shore has another important characteristic that profoundly influences Nielsen’s work. As European settlement proceeded, the Shore evolved as a land apart. The isolation of the more distant parts of Delmarva before the building of the Chesapeake Bay bridges meant the area never experienced the waves of ethnic migrations that swept nearby regions such as Pennsylvania and Maryland’s Western Shore. Settled by people predominantly of African, English, Irish, and Welsh extraction, the Shore’s population has had a significant degree of homogeneity for centuries. And that’s where the surprise comes in going through the exhibit Catching Shadows.
What will look back at you will be faces with characteristics common on the Shore yet with something difficult to define, familiar while distinctly different. These Native Americans are part of generations who pursued mostly obscure lives on what was a relatively isolated peninsula until the mid-twentieth century. Study their portraits carefully, and you too will be like Anne Nielsen divining the shadows of a vanished time.
Catching Shadows by Anne Nielsen runs through April 2023 at The Hill Research Center and Extended Museum located at 25 South Washington Street, Easton, MD. Further information and hours can be found on the Talbot Historical Society’s website: https://talbothistory.org/
Jeff McGuiness is the author of Bear Me Into Freedom: The Talbot County of Frederick Douglass.