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So I was intrigued by the people absolutely fascinated by new faces. I was just really attracted to their faces and I just started doing portraits.
I was so intrigued by the people and just absolutely fascinated by their faces. I was just really attracted to their faces and I just started doing portraits. You look at these black and white pictures and you see you don't see the color in people's dresses or the colors in people shirts. What you're seeing is is the form of the picture and the bodies of the people and or the or the shape of the face. It's like. Distilling ideas. From from a visual a chaotic chaotic situation. A song about the little.
Things as chance rew back. You know. Will you gut your feet. Mainstream. Anyone who has spent time in a dark room knows that photography is a form of alchemy. First a box with a lens is pointed at a subject. A black strip of cellulite comes out of the box. Light shines through it. A blank sheet of paper is immersed in a chemical bath and an image emerges. It's an old form of darkroom magic which may disappear in a world of digital technology. But through the work of Sarah Wiles it has saved another world from disappearing. A community of elders and traditional people on the Wind River Indian Reservation. It was really hard for me to go into public situations like say a powwow or some other kind of activity or a meeting and start taking
pictures. Because I didn't know how people would react to me or if I should even. Doing doing that I started doing a lot of those portraits and I think it was because I was so intrigued by the people and just absolutely fascinated by their faces. I was just really attracted to their faces and I just started doing portraits. Sarah would always be carrying a camera around and I wasn't aware that she was you know a real photographer say but she took a lot of pictures and. People were friendly you know toward her and felt comfortable. Sarah was really hesitant about exhibiting her photographs because she didn't know how the people would feel. And what I explained to Sara. It. Was that. I thought it was important the way ship autograph and what it was you know in a natural setting in their homes. And that's where they felt comfortable. You know we're in their home.
My friend Merrill Haas who's in Arapahoe asked me to display some things in the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Wyoming and when I put that show together I think that was 1991 that was really the first time that I exhibited pictures there were I think 33 pictures in that show black and white most of them portraits fairly close up portraits. So I went over and saw the presentational saw her slides. And then eventually we just got together home and lander. And I was just amazed at the amount of material she had. I started bringing things. Out of her storage area and kind of spreading things out in the dining room table. And just incredibly amazed at the numbers of photographs she'd taken and the overall quality of them. The interesting story she had to tell about them. I was interested in putting together an exhibition that could travel to small communities to small museums and libraries places around the state that would just inform the public a little bit more about the lives of people at Wind River. And so Sarah's photographs were
perfect for that idea. I just started receiving inquiries from other places. We went to the Newberry Library Chicago which is a very prestigious institution. They have their own photography collection of the great historical photographs. We went to places like the University of Montana art museum that really got around that particular exhibit. Before the exhibits in there. There was a childhood back home. I often think that one of the reasons that I've been able to work on the reservation is because of where I grew up I grew up in a really small town. It was a you know a small candy ripple County Indiana. That was a pretty poor county. There wasn't a lot of obvious wealth in the county and people were still real traditional The people who lived in that county. Their families
lived there for hundreds of years a lot of them. My family moved in there as early as 18 10 my family homesteaded. Where there was an Indian tribe living along the banks of the creek outside a town you know. And all my family on both sites go back to the early eighteen hundreds in this one little county. And it wasn't just my family that was like that. A lot of the families where there were like that. When I was growing up my Dad really liked photography he was sort of an amateur photographer and he did color slides he didn't do any of his own processing and we always had cameras around we always had little brownies. I just started doing that at a really early age in there and I remember I do remember in high school we used to have slide shows. My dad and I would take pictures of you know some activity or something with all the kids in the neighborhood or the kids in the class and we'd have little slideshows totally bored everybody. Sure. So I started taking pictures of my friends.
At college it had I you you know it kind of thing just sort of playing around with it see and we're. Seeing what happened with it. I was in graduate school and apology at Indiana University and we. All signed up to do a field summer session in Columbia South America. And my advisor said Now be sure and bring a camera to you and I said camera too so. I took two of my dad's 35 millimeter cameras along and did both color black and white. I had really good luck with it right from the start. I think I think maybe that's why it would intrigue me when it was kind of interesting. In the middle of her academic career. SARA While signed up for a stint with the Vista program a kind of domestic Peace Corps came to Wyoming for the first time I lived in Rock Springs for years of history and. You know I've seen people come out here and there from you know from the east
mostly here you know to come out here and they're just they're sort of overwhelmed by the wide open spaces and that and the third the Mudir the duster or whatever and I never had that reaction I lived a new life. I even like drugs. I love to Rock Springs for expenses very interesting commute. I know I love Wyoming so I applied for a job and got a job as a social worker. It was the state social services but it was on the reservation. I had always been very interested in working on an Indian reservation but I. Basically knew nothing about any specific tribes or anything. Sara moved to lander on the south border of the Wind River Indian Reservation. She married another social worker Steve wiles and they started a family. But that would not be her only family. One of the programs that we had that I worked with as a social worker was called the homemaker program. We were taught hire women to help the
elderly. I start looking for a job and found this job here as a homemaker. And I thought well. I don't have much education so I think of a more experienced. You know what I do for all people and stuff. So as I write that my dad and my uncle. And I did things for them. Who did a lot of good things to the old people and Sarah was right there. My sister semester. You know she stopped coming up to our place we invited her. You know we always but you know people we know. And we did write her and my sister just got acquainted with her my daughters my family. Just all those Sara Lee just like she's just one of us today. And because it is. Do RCMP have to call in or come with. Who were on her shoulder. This is just. She's just one of them that she became our sister you know she was part of the family. My old grasshopper indian me.
Up to now and she's with us all the time. You know we don't we don't see her Sarah Wildes photographer or our you know. As apologist or whatever title she has you know she's our sister. My folks were real controlling and I know a lot of people who are real controlling of their kids and. You know the Indian families give their kids lots of space to sort of grow in an experiment and I think they're always surrounded you know it's not like they're turned out on their own I mean now they're always surrounded by a large extended family. So I learned a lot. And learned a lot from them. You know the last family's been my family. I knew them for even met my husband you know and then she adopted me you know that relationship. Continued to stay. Thanks and learn. From observing Indian family on
the reservation affected the way I raised my own children. But even before her own children were born Sarah was beginning to capture the faces of the Arapaho people she worked with. I started doing those portraits early on of probably about the same time about 1975 76 when we were working on the leakers program. I started doing a lot of those portraits and I think it was because I was so intrigued by the people and just absolutely fascinated by their faces. I was just really attracted to their faces and I just started doing portraits. They were very kind and very welcoming and invited me into their house with the homemaker program and pictures that we did. And then later to do their portraits. And Gladys especially glasnost was
especially encouraging of me to come in and do pictures of the elders of her family. They are were always willing to have their pictures taken. And. She's got a lot a lot of people that are not living today. She did pictures of that once we were or. Done Arapaho. This area. And that's how she got close to the community. She wasn't a stranger to them. The people out here are very sharing you know with with what little they may have. Sarah was very accepting of the. Humble lifestyle lifestyles of the people up here and. That I think that was really important. She respect that their quiet manner she respected. The way they conducted themselves in their homes to one another. And she didn't try to change the people and I think that was really important.
A lot of the people on the reservation most of the people on the reservation have very plain homes and it's because one of their values is you don't show off. You don't show off your wealth. You don't show off your material surroundings because. Those kind of things are important. She copied the pictures that most adults would like to. Get a copy of their pictures. And she's got some hung up on her senior citizens and. Will be here a lot of people didn't own you know cameras and at that time and chill was really appreciating a fling. All they had was the memories and Sarah you know had the pictures the photographs that she generously gave to the family. It's really interesting that she's both doing this kind of community service that's really being used by the people on the reservation as well as the external viewpoint that seems to be very appealing to European Americans as well. When Sarah was taking someone's photograph obviously that's about
as personal as you can get in terms of getting someone's face and their energy and if you ask them about their own life. So you know people are understandably a little bit more careful potentially are more reluctant to have that kind of information taken away out of their control. Off the reservation I think it's a tribute to her that she's earned as much trust as she has. Service presence and her camera are taken for granted on the reservation and she keeps it simple. No huge lenses no giant Dr Nobel's versus this and one other just like it are the two cameras I've used since the early 1980s I think we bought one in 1980 and maybe one in 1981. Their Canon EF 1 sir just a really reliable sturdy old 35 millimeter camera and this is all I've ever used so I have two lenses that are actually three lenses that I use when taking photos on on the reservation or anywhere
and that's all I've got. I'm really pretty simple. I work just about every day I usually work in the morning in the darkroom for three or four hours sometimes more. Or else I spend the morning on the reservation. I do try to keep things as simple as possible. I try to keep things as simple as possible with chemicals and paper. I'm not somebody who experiments in terms of getting new equipment and getting new filters and getting new. Toys. And then larger I've bought at a garage sale in 1974 the year after I moved here for $100. But I really like it it's as simple as it gets is plain as it gets. It gives a pretty clear sharp picture except only does fall out along the edges like a lot of enlarges do so I have to compensate for that. But it's a little old.
Live and there are less than a minute and it comes just to see what you get. This is the developer over here this is the first stop back that stops the action and the. Effect of the developer and then it goes directly into the fixer. Then after that you can turn the light on and you can. Look at it. A serious reputation as groom she sometimes finds herself sharing gallery space with the great historic photographers of Native Americans. Flattering and
humbling but she also finds Sometimes she has issues with them. I think most people who take pictures in Native American communities whether they're native people themselves or whether they're outsiders coming in. Have to bounce off Curtis. Edward Curtis because he's so famous and his portraits are so famous. Edward Curtis took photographs between approximately 900 in one thousand thirty in Native American communities. He had a monumental project it was resulted in 20 volumes of photos and these portraits are iconic they're famous after being forgotten for 30 years and the 1060 say came back into style. And you see them everywhere now they're very they're very famous. I have trouble with Curtis a lot of people have trouble with Curtis but I have trouble with Curtis because his photos are so decontextualized. Most of
them don't even have people's names attached. You know that he'll have a you know a title he'll have a say. Disk you know as sort of a corny description. And so as she deepens her understanding of the choices a photographer makes and the power of pictures her own approach is changing over the years. I've gone on less from doing portraits into a more documentary form that is hopefully still artistic and appealing to people. But yeah it gives more context. So people who are viewing these pictures they're not just in body made pictures of people hanging on a wall. They're actually living human beings who live in a certain way and in a certain time in a certain place that's that's different from mainstream America. When Sarah began sorting through her thousands of pictures for a book project it increased her concern for the context of her subjects.
I have looked at hundreds of photography books. Many of the books taken in Native American communities none of them seem to fit a model that would work for the photographs that I was doing what I was trying to do in terms of contextualizing things. And when I started interviewing people to get more information to put with the pictures. That's when things changed. Things really changed right then they changed and quickly because I realized I was getting wonderful life stories from people not just when people were born not just when people die not just what political office they had but really intimate interesting. Funny and sad stories about their lives and they wouldn't fit in a caption because no one else really comes out here on a regular basis and tries to get lots of different people lots of different ceremonies and also get the cultural information behind the pictures. And I realized it was a fantastic way that I can
use to show my students what it's actually like on this reservation. The photographs of the tax that went with them captured rather than anything else I've ever seen exactly what goes out of here what I've done is write more and more and I'm not a writer I'm not comfortable writing. But I felt these people stories had to be told. When it comes to context one of Sarah's subjects Janie Brown provides it in abundance. Jane. I got to know Jeannie when she became a cook at the Senior Citizen Center. I always go to the senior citizen center for lunch. You know that's where you find out everything that's going on in the community the elders come in there get to visit with everybody players go to the senior citizens for lunch when I'm on the reservation. And Jamie started cooking there about 10 or 12 years ago and I got to know her and she would always bring her beadwork to work. So over the years I've watched her beat absolutely incredible things everything from Mickey Mouse mop moccasins to will be to
dresses the result is not a single photo but a series not a caption but an essay. Janie was born Elizabeth-Jane Wellingborough in 1953 and spent her first 11 years living in a frame tent. Next to her grandpa's log home. It had a dirt floor a wood frame around the bottom and a tent covering all of it and a wood stove. Program poet shovel the snow to the road so the children would get their feet wet when going to school. She lived with other relatives for a while after that and attended a local elementary school. Every week of the year Janie Brown makes over 100 meals some are distributed as Meals on Wheels. But most are served at the Senior Citizen Center to come not only to eat but also to visit friends and catch up on community.
Early in the morning to be ready for the 11:30 serving our. Pots of soup and checking roasts and making bread she catches a few minutes to be made. In mid afternoon when she goes home and beats. A lifelong Indian name has been hollering all around. When the book is completed and two years into it she will not rush the process. It may also be the end of a chapter in her career. I have a sense that in some ways maybe my work on the reservation in terms of the taking pictures and documenting the life is kind of winding up. I've been doing it since 1974.
I think I'm kind of getting burned out. I think people are getting really tired of saying you come around and bother them a lot of times. I jokingly say that. I'm going to retire and photograph trees. With trees I don't need to go out and get releases from 20 people for every picture. And it's a lot easier. To Ya. I'd like to continue with the infrared photography. I. Really like. You really like working with the infrared.
Main Street, Wyoming
Episode Number
The Photography of Sara Wiles
Producing Organization
Wyoming PBS
Contributing Organization
Wyoming PBS (Riverton, Wyoming)
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Episode Description
The subject of this episode is professional photographer Sara Wiles. Wiles was fascinated by the community of American Indians living on the Wind River Reservation, and she took lots of portraits of the natives' faces, which, as their interviews in this episode show, they were surprisingly comfortable with. The clip is preceded by a 30-second promo reel.
Other Description
"Main Street, Wyoming is a documentary series exploring aspects of Wyoming's local history and culture."
Copyright Date
Asset type
Local Communities
Photography by Sara Wiles Used with Permission of Sara Wiles
A Production of Wyoming Public Television Copyright 2006 KCWC-TV
Media type
Moving Image
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Editor: Dorman, John
Narrator: Debevoise, Nancy
Producer: O'Gara, Geoffrey
Producing Organization: Wyoming PBS
Writer: O'Gara, Geoffrey
AAPB Contributor Holdings
Wyoming PBS (KCWC)
Identifier: 6-4273 (WYO PBS)
Format: Betacam
Generation: Master
Duration: 00:30:00?
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Chicago: “Main Street, Wyoming; 901; The Photography of Sara Wiles,” 2006-00-00, Wyoming PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 25, 2022,
MLA: “Main Street, Wyoming; 901; The Photography of Sara Wiles.” 2006-00-00. Wyoming PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 25, 2022. <>.
APA: Main Street, Wyoming; 901; The Photography of Sara Wiles. Boston, MA: Wyoming PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from