Colored by Hand: Vintage Native American Photography

Published February 22, 2015
Updated January 12, 2019
Vintage Native American Photography

Jicarilla Apache Chief James A. Garfield, 1899. Photo by William Henry Jackson. Photo via Montana State University Library. Huffington Post

Hand-painted photographs possess a beauty all their own. Long before ‘selfies’ and even before the days of colored film (which wouldn’t truly arrive until the 1930s), people wanted to add a vibrant realism to their black and white photos. Over time, the process really grew into a true art form, and decades later the popularity of these classic images continues to grow.

While making his film Moses on the Mesa, which tells the tale of a 19th century German-Jewish immigrant who falls in love with a Native American woman and later becomes governor of her tribe in New Mexico, writer/director Paul Ratner collected these stunning hand-painted images of Native Americans. The saturated photos really highlight the richness of North America’s original inhabitants. Said Ratner:

“[the portraits] are in a way no different than historical portraits of European kings, queens and nobility. Except that not only do they show majestic regalia, but also strong, natural faces rather than the weak, powdered gazes of the often-interbred rulers from across the ocean that brought their demise.”

We couldn’t agree more.

“In Summer” members of the Kiowa tribe, 1898. Photo by F.A. Rinehart, via the Boston Public Library.

Chief Bone Necklace of the Oglala Lakota with bow and arrow, 1899. Photo by Heyn Photo, via the Library of Congress.

Geronimo (or Goyaałé), was a prominent leader of the Bedonkohe Apache, 1898. The name Geronimo translates to “The one who yawns.” Photo by F.A. Rinehart, via the Boston Public Library

Chief Little Wound of the Oglala Lakota, and family, 1899. Photo by Heyn Photo, via Denver Public Library Digital Collections.

Son of Chief American Horse, Charles American Horse of the Oglala Lakota, 1901. Photo by William Herman Rau, via the Princeton Digital Library.

Wolf Robe, Chief of the Cheyenne, 1898. This is a color halftone reproduction from a F. A. Rinehart photograph, 1898, via the Denver Public Library Digital Collections.

A dancer from the Crow tribe, early 1900’s. Photo by Richard Throssel, via the University of Wyoming, American Heritage Center.

Image of a Pueblo man entitled “Songlike”, 1899. Photo by F.A. Rinehart, via the Boston Public Library.

An Ojibwe man known as Arrowmaker, 1903. Photochromic print by the Detroit Photographic Company, via the Library of Congress

Granddaughter of Brings-Down-The-Sun of the Blackfoot tribe in front of the family’s Thunder Tipi, early 1900’s. Glass lantern slide by Walter McClintock. via the Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Erin Kelly
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Kelly, Erin. "Colored by Hand: Vintage Native American Photography.", February 22, 2015, Accessed June 24, 2024.