In the fall of 1984, Smithsonian anthropologist Joanna Cohan Scherer made a startling discovery. In search of photographs for the Institution's Handbook of North American Indians, she had ventured into the cluttered confines of the Bannock County Historical Society in Pocatello, Idaho. Straining to view an array of vintage portraits of Northern Shoshone and Bannock (Sho-Ban) Indians, she was amazed to find two familiar images. They were, in fact, identical to two portraits she had found earlier that year in a collection of 148 unidentified glass negatives at the National Archives.
The Bannock County images bore the imprint "B. Wrensted, Pocatello." And who was B. Wrensted? Scherer was determined to find out. So began ten years of painstaking detective work. Scherer consulted tribal elders from the nearby Fort Hall Indian Reservation, wrote countless letters and scoured libraries, museums and private collections. She checked business directories and census records from the turn of the century, devoured issues of the Pocatello Tribune spanning 20 years, conducted interviews and journeyed to Denmark, Wrensted's birthplace. As a result, a little-known woman photographer named Benedicte Wrensted has emerged from obscurity — bringing to light a priceless visual legacy. An exhibit of Wrensted's work is now touring the country and will be at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, from February 3 to April 30.
Noted for her evocative handling of natural light and the painterly quality of her images — such as the 1897 portrait of two unidentified Sho-Ban dancers — Wrensted was cited in 1901 as an "artist of talent and attainment." But wider acclaim eluded her, and her photographs were rarely published. Most were taken home by her customers — cowboys, school groups, and families and individuals from Pocatello and Fort Hall. "What sets Wrensted's work apart," says Scherer, "is her skill in portraying the humanity — the individuality — of the people who posed for her. She captured their presence with a dignity and beauty that transcend time and place."
"Benedicte Wrensted: An Idaho Photographer in Focus" is circulated by Exhibits USA and produced by the Idaho Museum of Natural History with support from the Idaho Humanities Council and the Smithsonian Institution.