Apr 15, 2021 - Sale 2564

Sale 2564 - Lot 134

Price Realized: $ 2,250
?Final Price Realized includes Buyer’s Premium added to Hammer Price
Estimate: $ 2,000 - $ 3,000
(AMERICAN INDIANS--PHOTOGRAPHS.) S.W. Ormsby. Group of 9 Indian portraits and views, including his famous "Peace." 9 silver prints, some captioned, signed and/or dated in the negative, each just under 8 x 6 inches except as noted, each variously chipped or creased along lower edge, mounted to album leaves or removed from same. With the original album which once housed these photographs, limp pictorial felt-covered paper with embossed monogram "G.F. McK" on rear cover. Montana, 1900 and undated

Additional Details

Sanderson Woodruff Ormsby (1858-1929) was a photographer best known for his work among the Assiniboine and Sioux people of Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana. Included here are 9 original prints by Ormsby, including:

"Walks on the Ground, Assiniboine," signed in negative, mount remnants on verso.

"Two Hawk, Sioux," mounted on an album leaf with an untitled full-length portrait of a young man holding a hatchet mounted on verso, both signed and dated 1900 in negative.

Untitled view of tipis being set up, just under 5 x 8 inches, mount remnants on verso.

Another portrait of "Walk on the Ground, Assiniboine," 1900, signed in negative, with the bottom half inch detached but present, mounted on an album leaf with an untitled portrait of a woman mounted on verso.

Untitled print of Ormsby's masterwork "Peace" or "The Real Indian" (illustrated), mounted on an album leaf with an untitled portrait of a woman on verso.

Untitled view of tipi and 5 occupants (attributed elsewhere to Ormsby), 1-inch closed tear in center of image, mounted on album leaf.

The standard biographical account of this photographer reads "Very little is known about S.W. Ormsby." He led an unusually random and peripatetic life, with his photographic career as only one short but interesting chapter. As nearly as we can piece together, he was born in 1858 in Santa Rosa, CA. He was apparently named after Judge Silas Woodruff Sanderson (1824-1886), who had married into the Ormsby family. His father was a physician in a succession of gold-mining towns, and also dabbled in minting gold coinage. We don't know much about Ormsby's early adulthood, but by 1897 he was working as a Great Northern railway station agent in remote Wolf Point, Montana. He was an amateur photographer in his free time, of which he had quite a bit. On the morning of 10 August 1897, he got a local Assiniboine named Yellow Boy to pose in the traditional gesture of peace, standing with his weapons on the ground and one hand lifted to his forehead. The shot won first prize in an amateur photography contest held by the Minneapolis Tribune, which pronounced that "we do not remember ever having seen so good an illustration of the Indian as he appears in poetry and romance" (7 November 1897). They later declared it "the finest Indian photograph ever made" (4 September 1898). This opportunity thrust Ormsby briefly on the path to photographic stardom. Variously titled as "Peace," "Chief Yellow Boy Giving the Peace Sign," or "The Real Indian," his masterpiece was published in Cosmopolitan Monthly (January 1898, page 330), "Photograms of '98" (page 41), and several newspapers. A life-sized painting of the photograph on glass by Marion Graves was displayed across the country, including the expositions at Omaha (1898) and Buffalo (1901). Ormsby took this opportunity to quit his day job as a station agent and pursue photography full-time, but was unable to capitalize on his initial success. By 1900, he was working as a cashier in Spokane, WA. The last reference we find to his photographic work was in 1901 as an assistant to Harrie C. Barley in Skagway, Alaska (Daily Morning Alaskan, 23 May 1901).

The remainder of his life was spent cycling through occupations and cities. He married Lucy Maley in 1902 in Des Moines, Iowa; their only son Francis Maley Ormsby was born there the following year, and in 1904 he was listed a manager of a land and loan company. From 1910 to 1912, he and the family were back in Spokane, where he was an advertising writer for the Inland Advertising Agency. He was in Portland, Oregon from 1913 to 1917, at one point selling real estate. His final stop was Boise, Idaho. He was listed as a hotel clerk in 1927, a woolgrower in 1929, and finally on his 1929 death certificate as simply a "laborer." Shortly after his death, his son Francis assumed the name Brother Zara, became a Buddhist monk, and removed to Japan. This earned him extensive newspaper coverage. If you have any doubts that the many lives led by these S.W. Ormsbys were one and the same, a 1943 profile of his son Francis recounted that "his mother, Mrs. Lou M. Ormsby, was teaching American Indians on reservations in Iowa, Idaho and Minnesota, and his father, the late Sanderson W. Ormsby, was adopted by Assiniboin-Yankton Indians in Montana" (Berkeley Daily Gazette Archives, 22 November 1943).