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Karl (Carl) Moon and the Pueblo Native North Americans portraits.

In the history of American photography, the name Karl Moon stands out for his captivating portrayal of Native American life. Born in 1879, Moon embarked on a journey that would immortalize the cultures, traditions, and faces of indigenous peoples across the American West. His work not only captured moments in time but also served as a bridge between worlds, bringing the rich tapestry of Native American life to a wider audience.

Raised in Wilmington, Ohio, Carl (originally Karl) Everton Moon loved reading stories about Native Americans as a boy. He followed his Western aspirations to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he set up a studio in 1904 and began photographing, painting, and travelling among Pueblo tribe members he befriended.

"Navajo Boy", 1907

Moon's photographic career blossomed in the early 20th century, coinciding with a period of rapid change for Native American communities. During this time, the United States government was implementing policies aimed at assimilating indigenous peoples into mainstream American society, often at the expense of their cultural heritage. Moon's lens offered a counter-narrative, preserving the dignity and authenticity of Native American life.

“Photographing the American Indian in his natural state was the principal aim of Carl Moon,” wrote Tom Driebe, author of In Search of the Wild Indian: Photographs & Life Works by Carl and Grace Moon. “He tried to show the Indian as he lived before civilization hampered his freedom ... and changed his picturesque customs and mode of dress.” Moon knew he was working against the clock of forced acculturation. “About the only thing we have thus far overlooked taking from the Indian,” he wrote, “is his right to perform his religious rites with their accompanying dances in his own way.”

"Vicente, Chief of Navajos", 1905

One of Moon's notable ventures was his collaboration with the Navajo Nation in the early 1900s. His photographs captured the everyday activities, ceremonies, and landscapes of the Navajo people, providing a window into their world. Among his subjects were prominent Navajo leaders such as Hoskininni, a respected medicine man, and Hastiin Klah, a renowned Navajo singer and weaver. Moon's images of Navajo hogans, sheepherding scenes, and traditional ceremonies offer a glimpse into a way of life that has endured for centuries.

Karl Moon, Little Maid of the Desert, 1914

In 1907 Moon moved to Arizona and for seven years gathered paintings and photographs for the Fred Harvey Company at the Grand Canyon; there, he also served as the official photographer for the Santa Fe Railroad and studied painting with visiting artists, including Thomas Moran, Louis Akin, and Frank Sauerwein. Moon married artist Grace Purdie in 1911, and the two travelled the Southwest documenting Native culture. In 1914, the couple settled in Pasadena, California, and embarked on a series of 22 illustrated children’s books about American Indians.

In addition to the Navajo, Moon ventured into other tribal territories, including the Apache, Hopi, and Pueblo communities. His photographs of Apache warriors, Hopi kachina dancers, and Pueblo pottery makers captured the diversity and resilience of Native American cultures. Moon had a keen eye for detail, often highlighting the intricate craftsmanship of indigenous artifacts and the rugged beauty of the Southwestern landscape.

"The Wolf (Ma-Itso)", 1904

Moon's work was not without controversy, however. Some critics have accused him of romanticising Native American life and perpetuating stereotypes. Indeed, his photographs often portrayed indigenous peoples through the lens of the "noble savage" archetype prevalent in early 20th-century America. Despite these criticisms, Moon's photographs remain valuable historical documents that offer insight into a pivotal period in Native American history.

"Loti, Laguna Pueblo"

In 1923, Moon approached railroad magnate and art collector Henry E. Huntington with the proposition of selling 300 photographic prints and 24 oil paintings, “an addition that Moon felt would ‘give the student of the future the true colouring of the Indian and his surroundings,’ ” says Jennifer A. Watts, curator of photographs at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

Moon died in 1948 in San Francisco; his art lives on at The Huntington, where the collection is being arranged, described, and digitized. “The Moon photographs are not only an important visual resource for scholars and students of tribal peoples at the turn of the 20th century,” Watts says, “but sensitive, beautifully rendered portraits that reveal the artist’s deep admiration for the peoples he photographed.”


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