The old photographs and glass plates lay abandoned, dirty and dusty for years before David Cooper found them in his parent's photo studio. It turned out they were shot by Danish emigre Niels Larson Hakkerup, who set up shop in Bemidji around 1900 and is considered one of the leading portrait photographers of American Indians.
The once-lost images have now gone on display at Bemidji State University, where they'll be part of the permanent collection at the American Indian Resource Center, The Pioneer of Bemidji reported Thursday.
The exhibit includes 22 large photos, and several smaller prints, taken between 1900 and 1915, showing members of the Leech Lake and Red Lake Nations.
Dominating the exhibit are photographs of Leech Lake elder John Smith, who died in 1922 at a reputed age of 137. He saw the first French fur traders come through the area and witnessed the land transformed through logging, mining and the expansion of the United States.
"He lived through the French, British and American regimes at a time when the Ojibwe and Dakota people were sparring for the land," said Anton Treuer, executive director of the center. "You look at this deeply wrinkled, weathered face and you just wonder what it was like to see all that transformation in one person's lifetime."
Also on display is a picture of Chief Bemidji, for whom the city is named. An original glass plate of Chief Bemidji that can be illuminated with a switch is also on display.
Hakkerup composed his portraits with a painterly eye, using light to focus the eye on beadwork, clothing and hair styles. His work is part of the collections at the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress Collection of American Indian Photographs, Minnesota Historical Society and the Beltrami County Historical Society.
Cooper's parents, Aza and Miriam, purchased his studio in 1946. The photographic plates were found in the rubble Hakkerup left behind after the sale. Former Bemidji State president Jon Quistgaard, a friend of David Cooper, persuaded him to donate the photographs to the IRC and spearheaded the effort to have them mounted.
Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe, said the Native American community appreciates the Cooper family's gift. He said the exhibit will provide opportunities for people to understand more deeply the first people of the region.
"A photograph is more than just a pretty picture, it is a window into history," he said.
Information from: The Bemidji Pioneer