Online Artist Archive
Fiske, Frank Bennett
b. June 11, 1883; d. July 18, 1952
Still a young boy on April 15, 1889, photographer, author, journalist, and raconteur-to-be Frank Bennett Fiske arrived at the small settlement of Winona on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles the border between present-day North and South Dakota. Winona (which no longer exists) was a town of saloons and brothels across the Missouri River from Fort Yates, a military post where Fiske’s father George worked as a civilian wagon master. The family, which included Fiske’s mother Louise (Otter) and sister Laura, moved to Winona after a severe drought in 1888 had forced them to quit ranching. Before that, the family had lived at Fort Bennett (for which Fiske was partly named) in the southern Dakota Territory, where George was stationed while still in the military.
On December 16, 1890, Sitting Bull was killed during a confrontation with Standing Rock Agency police and young Fiske personally witnessed the delivery of the body to the Fort Yates morgue. Fiske and several friends waited outside the “death house,” as it was known, until the body was wrapped and brought out for burial at a nearby cemetery.
Starting in 1890, Fiske attended the post’s school and later transferred to a government boarding school at which most of his classmates were American Indians. He soon developed an affinity for the people and their culture. When, as a teenager, he started to study under post photographer Stephen T. “Dick” Fansler, Fiske made them the primary subject of his images. This trend was to continue for the rest of his life and career as a photographer. (Also during this period, Fiske worked as a steamboat cabin boy, learned to play violin, and herded cattle for residents of the fort.)
In 1899, the Fiske family moved about 35 miles upriver to a ranch near Fort Rice. Instead of staying with them, the 16-year-old Fiske returned to Fort Yates to continue his apprenticeship with Fansler. In 1900, the master never returned from a trip to West Virginia and Fiske became the new post photographer. Operating in this position until the fort was abandoned in 1903, he took advantage of the access to the Sioux living in the area and made as many portraits of them as possible. He continued this trend after the fort closed, making photographs of some of the most well-known Indians of the time: Rain-in-the-Face, John Grass, White Bull, One Bull, Mary Crawler, and Red Tomahawk, among others. He also made portraits of many notable settlers in the area including Major James McLaughlin, Alex McKenzie, Captain Belk, and General Hugh Scott. Additionally, he photographed many scenes common to reservation and river life at the time including riverboats, government buildings and offices, houses, cattle drives, and rodeos and other recreation.
Practicing an art form that was still in its formative years, Fiske produced his early images with glass-plate negatives and a solar printing process. Many photographs of Fiske’s era were produced by capturing a scene on a clear glass plate that was coated with light-sensitive chemicals derived from silver. The plate would then be processed in chemical baths until a negative image was produced on it. Fiske made prints from these negatives by placing a piece of treated photographic paper underneath the plate near an uncovered window. Sunlight would filter through the plate and produce a positive print of the image on the paper. As the technology of photography progressed (thanks in part to the budding art of motion pictures), Fiske and other photographers moved on to flexible raw film, negatives, and printing processes, the basics of which are still used today.
The fact that Fiske was able to produce the quality of images that he did using such crude processes speaks greatly of his talent as a photographer. His images were rich with detail, sharply presenting beads, feathers, and other Indian attire. Wrinkles, dimples, and other features can be clearly seen on the composed faces of his subjects. His portraits were well composed with the subject usually in the center of the frame, dramatically lit from one area of the frame with a separate spotlight on the face, sharply focused, and strongly contrasted. (It is important to note that Fiske’s photographs documented life as it was at the time and did not attempt to recreate the American Indian culture that existed before. His subjects were photographed in modern dress, not traditional dress. Often, Army-issued long-johns could be seen underneath garments and several photographs featured American Indians acclimating themselves to their situation at the time at weddings, graduations, birth ceremonies, and schools.) In all, Fiske produced almost 8,000 known photographs.
As a prominent member of his community, Fiske served over the course of his life as Sioux County auditor and treasurer, justice of the peace, chairman of the county Red Cross, war bonds chairman, and chairman for the county chapter of the Greater North Dakota Association. From 1912-1917, he worked as an assistant riverboat pilot, serving for a time under renowned captain Grant Marsh. He wrote two books: Taming of the Sioux (1917) and Life and Death of Sitting Bull (1933) and, from 1929-1939, was editor and publisher of the Sioux County Pioneer-Arrow, a newspaper. When the United States entered World War One in 1917, Fiske joined the Army, where he served for one year in Camp Custer, Michigan. (His scheduled overseas deployment was cancelled when peace was declared in 1918.)
With the exceptions of his military service, months-long excursions at his studio in Bismarck (which he eventually sold to William and Virginia Butler), and a three-year (1925-1928) stint in McLaughlin, South Dakota, Fiske lived most of his life in Fort Yates.
In 1950, he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized in a veteran’s facility in Fargo, which forced him to miss a ceremony marking his addition to the Honor Roll of the American Artists Professional League. He died of complications from a stroke on July 18, 1952 at a Bismarck hospital. He was survived by his wife of thirty-four years Angela (Cournoyer, a piano teacher, playwright, and great-granddaughter of the Yanktonaii Sioux chief Forked Horn), their daughter Francine Fiske Peters, and five grandchildren. His third book History of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation was published posthumously a year later.
- Ben Nemenoff
“An Account of Sitting Bull’s Death by James McLaughlin, Indian Agent at Standing Rock Reservation (1891).” PBS: New Perspectives on the West. <http://www.pbs.org>.
Barr, Paul E. North Dakota Artists. Grand Forks: University of North Dakota Library, 1954.
“493 Art History: Photography from 1800 through Today.” negativepositive.com. May 6, 2004. <http://www.negativepositive.com>.
“Frank Bennett Fiske.” The Cowboy Chronicle Extra. Bismarck: North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, Summer 2001.
“Frank Bennett Fiske.” North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. May 6, 2004. <http://www.northdakotacowboy.com>.
“Frank Fiske.” Rapid City, South Dakota: Prairie Edge Trading Co. and Galleries. May 6, 2004. <http://www.prairieedge.com>.
“NDSU Library Features Frank Fiske Photographs.” North Dakota State University Libraries. May 6, 2004. <http://www.lib.ndsu.nodak.edu>.
Obituary. Selfridge, North Dakota: Selfridge Journal, Vol. 35, No. 17, July 24, 1952.
Rolfsrud, Erling Nicolai. Extraordinary North Dakotans. Alexandria, Minnesota: Lantern Books, 1954.
Slemmons, Rod. “Frank Fiske and Western Photography.” The Fiske Portfolios. Murray Lemley, editor. Bismarck: North Dakota Heritage Foundation, Inc., 1983.
Vyzralek, Frank. “Frank Bennett Fiske.” The Fiske Portfolios. Murray Lemley, editor. Bismarck: North Dakota Heritage Foundation, Inc., 1983.
State Historical Society of North Dakota
*Images courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (#2522, #3116, and #5611).