Portraits of resilience

Through tintypes, Kaska Dena photographer Kali Spitzer creates collaborative images of her community.

  • Crystal Rose Worl, Tlingit Athabascan. Crystal lives in Juneau, Alaska working as a co-owner of Trickster Company with her brother Rico Worl. Trickster Company promotes innovative Indigenous design that focuses on Northwest Coast art and explores issues in Native culture.

  • Datura

  • Eloise Spitzer, Jewish of Transylvanian and Polish Decent, from West and North of Canada. Eloise has survived breast cancer and a double mastectomy. She is the mother of Kali Spitzer.

  • Erena Arapere and her daughter Parekohatu Arapere.

  • Tania, Gwich’in and Swedish, from Yellowknife Northwest Territories.

  • Holland Andrews is an American extended technique vocalist, composer, clarinetist and performer based in Portland, Oregon.

  • Lillian and Payton

  • Melaw Nakehk’o, Deh Cho Dene/Denesulene from The Northwest Territories of Canada. Nakehk’o is a mother of three young boys, and an artist and moose hide tanner. She co-founded the first nations organization Dene Nahjo. Recently, Nakehk’o played Arikarawoman Powaqa in the 2015 film, The Revenant.

  • Kinaii

  • Wabiska Maengun and daughter Charlie. Maengun is a mother, softball coach, artist, arts administrator and a founding member of The Ephemerals, a musical group. She is of Cree/English descent from Kistiganwacheeng, Garden Hill First Nation, Canada.

  • Sasha “Taqsweblu” LaPointe, Coast Salish, Nooksack Tribe, from Nooksack/Upper Skagit Washington.


Kaska Dena photographer Kali Spitzer’s tintypes could be called a collaborative act of resistance. Developed in the 1850s, the photographic process of tintypes, which became popular in the latter half of the 19th century, uses a thin sheet of metal coated in emulsion to produce an image almost instantly. Spitzer’s series, An Exploration of Resilience and Resistance, explores the process by directly challenging the early uses of the medium, the most prominent of which, perhaps, was the use of tintypes to document Western expansion and Indigenous people. This interview with HCN’s Tristan Ahtone, who also sits on the Institute of American Indian Arts Alumni Council, has been slightly edited for clarity and length.

HCN: Could you talk about your choice of tintype for this project?

Kali Spitzer: I’ve always been fascinated by tintypes. The first images that I was really taken with were Sally Mann’s wet plates. And I also used to do silversmithing, so it’s kind of combining my love for analog photography and mixed-media metal. I really like that aspect of it. It's such a rich process, and I really enjoy being able to develop the image right away after you take it. That creates a really lovely space between the photographer and the person you're making images with, because you get to develop it with them in the darkroom and they can see it and can critique it if they want and make changes. But that dialogue that happens in the darkroom, when they see an image appear, is a beautiful moment. A lot of people, I’ve found, consider it an accurate representation of them. Some people say that they look like their ancestors, but it’s a really special moment in the darkroom when you develop the image.

HCN: How does that collaboration work in the development process? Do you talk about editing or re-shoots?

KS: For the most part, people love the images, and they love seeing that process. But sometimes somebody will say, “Oh, I actually want the crop to be further away,” or “Maybe I’ll turn this way.” It’s like a collaborative experience, and of course it’s through my lens, but I just find that people get a little bit more out of it when they have input. Even if they don’t find a photo flattering, we get to work together on it, since they get to see the image right away.

HCN: Do you primarily shoot analog? 

KS: Yes, 35mm and 120 and 8-by-10.

HCN: How does instant film development and the collaboration that comes with it compare to your other photo series, where you have to wait for rolls of film to be developed? 

KS: There’s so much excitement about going to shoot a roll of film and not knowing what’s on it and waiting to develop. That’s a different excitement and challenge, and you just trust what you’re doing is going to be a beautiful piece of art. And with wet plate, I think people get to be a bit more involved. Maybe it’s also part of living in a world where instant gratification is so often met. 

HCN: I see in the tintypes a lot of faces from the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Is that a project that started there or friends you’ve kept in touch with? 

KS: It was a project that started when I was at the Santa Fe Community College. I switched over there from IAIA, and I’ve always really liked to photograph my friends and family in the community because I feel like, at least with photography and the way I approach it, trust is such a huge element in the work. I think that having a relationship with the person you photograph, for me, is essential. To ask people to be vulnerable and share themselves with me, through the work and then with other people by showing the work — it’s just really important that you have a connection with that person. And being of mixed heritage, I really wanted to highlight Indigenous, black and brown, women, queer, trans, non-binary people, and that was also a lot of my peers living in New Mexico. A lot of my peers come from those communities.

HCN: Will Wilson is a mentor of yours and has worked extensively with the tintypes. I’m also aware that tintypes have been a hugely influential force in the establishment of Indigenous imagery in the American consciousness. Wilson’s work has embraced the form with the aim of reclaiming the medium as well as the imagery. Is that going on here with your work, especially when you’re photographing marginalized and underrepresented communities?

KS: Yeah, that’s definitely a part of it, and that’s definitely a part of (Wilson’s) influence on me as well. He’s such a generous teacher and humble person and a really great mentor. I try to appreciate him whenever possible, because he helped me get to the point that I’m at. I think that within this medium and with photography in general, it’s historically been a tool of taking — especially with settler photographers, who used it in an exploitive manner. So now there is a chance to reclaim that practice, and do it in a good way — do it in a way that gives people autonomy and makes them feel good about it. So that it's not taking; it’s a creation.

HCN: Do you think that audiences pick up on that — that they can see your work challenging early ethnographers, like Edward S. Curtis, who have used similar photographic processes’?

KS: Yeah, I do think it comes across, and I think it comes across in the strength and vulnerability in people’s faces. People are looking proud and comfortable; I often just photograph people when they’re looking straight at me, so there is that connection — when someone is in a space filled with these portraits and people are all looking at you. So I do think that comes across, and theres also audio components that go along with these images that the person in the image has a choice to contribute or not. And theres no editing of audio and no restrictions. If someone wants guidelines, I will give that to them, but its so much about being heard and seen. I think that Indigenous women, trans, non-binary people as well as people of color, the black and brown and queer community, that we are often not seen or heard. And theres so much violence committed against our communities, so part of my idea, part of my hope, is that by making beautiful, intense, loving images that are so large, where the person is looking right at you and youre also encouraged to listen to their story of what they want to share with you, Im hoping to make a deep, human connection — where maybe if somebody walks into that gallery that had a prejudice before, maybe theyd leave more educated, or feeling connected to a person that they wouldnt usually connect to. 

HCN: Will you be continuing to photograph subjects — your friends, your family, your community — in the region your currently in or potentially take the project on the road in the future?

KS: Definitely. But I want to point out that Im trying to be conscious in my language, and I dont really like to use the word “subject.” It feels a tiny bit exploitive to me because I do view this process as a collaboration, and people are expecting me to do good things with the images after that point of collaboration. So I try to not use that word. But it is a dream of mine to go on the road. Im originally from the British Columbia-Yukon border. My dads family is Kaska Dena, and its a dream of mine to have a mobile set-up and go up there and photograph our elders and community members and do these kinds of recordings with them. I feel a huge race against time for that, because my dad went to residential school, and for my generation theres a huge gap of knowledge; theres a rush to regain knowledge from our elders and knowledge keepers that didnt go to residential school. Its a project I feel passionate about, and I need to get a move on. 

HCN: Thinking about the language of photography and the relationships it has traditionally defined — the use of the word “subject” for instance — Im using the language I know to describe the craft, but what Im hearing from you is that being conscience of power dynamics can make real change in photography. What other ways are you working to subvert those traditional roles in the medium? 

KS: One big part of that is trying to change my language. Instead of “Can I take your photo?” I say, “Can we make an image together?” Those small things can be followed up with action. I also try to check in with people that Ive created images with and talk about how I use them or where they end up. I try to be respectful and protective of the people I make images with, and I think thats one way photographers can be better. We often make titles together, or if a person wants a title to be changed later we talk about it. I just want to make sure people feel comfortable through the whole process. National Geographic asked if they could use the image of a certain person. (That person) was not comfortable with that and said, “No,” so that image wasn’t used. Prioritizing the health and safety of the people I make images with over recognition or publication is important.

HCN: Is there anything else I should be asking you that Im not?

KS: For me, its (about) working with people and forming and expanding personal relationships to make work together and make people feel empowered about themselves and empowered to share their stories and make accurate images of people, in which we get to define how we want to be represented and what is beautiful to us, beyond beauty being something that’s just pretty. Some of these sessions we dont even make that many images; we may be there three or four hours just talking in between, and even though I already know these people, Im getting to know how they want to be photographed, how they want to be represented, and making sure that they have a say in that, and also acknowledging how grateful I am about what they share with me and other people. My art is based around other people. I couldnt do it without them.

Kali Spitzer’s work can be seen at https://kalispitzer.photoshelter.com/index

Tristan Ahtone is a member of the Kiowa Tribe and associate editor of the High Country News tribal affairs desk.