A Great Danish American Birthday - Benedicte Wrensted

  • February 10, 2022
  • February 10, 2023
  • 2 sessions
  • February 10, 2022 (CST)
  • February 10, 2023 (CST)

A GREAT DANISH AMERICAN BIRTHDAY - BENEDICTE MARIE WRENSTED

Benedicte Marie Wrensted (February 10, 1859 – January 19, 1949) was a notable Danish-American photographer best known for the many photographs she took of the Shoshone native people in Idaho. She is remembered for her documentation of the Northern Shoshone, Lemhi, and Bannock tribes in Idaho between 1895-1912.

Born in Hjørring, Jutland, Benedicte learned photography (one the the few professions considered suitable for women at the time) from her aunt, Charlotte Borgen. She then opened her own studio in Horsens, which she ran until she emigrated to the United States in 1894. 

After arriving in America, Benedicte moved to Pocatello, Idaho where her brother Peter had settled. Here she acquired a studio in 1895 where she took photographs of the local inhabitants and recorded the growth of the town. Her documentary photographs of the Shoshone and Bannock Native Americans are still considered to be of great anthropological importance. Many of her Native American images are preserved at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Archives.

Wrensted's parents were Captain Carl V. Wrensted, later an innkeeper, and Johanne Borgen.  She grew up and attended school in Frederikshavn in the far north of Jutland. One of the few professions considered suitable for women at the time was photography. Wrensted learnt the craft in the 1880s from her aunt, Charlotte Borgen, who was a photographer in Frederikshavn.  She then opened a studio of her own in Horsens.

She was known for her expressive handling of natural light and the painterly quality of her photographs. Wrensted photographed The Edmos, a prominent Native American family from the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, quite often.

Wrensted became a U.S. citizen in 1912, at age 53, and the same year she ended her career as a photographer. She sold her studio in Pocatello and moved to Los Angeles where she died on January 19, 1949 shortly before her 90th birthday.

Many of her Native American images are preserved at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Archives. In the fall of 1984, Smithsonian anthropologist, Joanna Cohan Scherer was looking for photographs in the Smithsonian Institute's "Handbook of North American Indian" and came across the clutter of the Bannock County Historical Society in Pocatello, Idaho. She came across some Bannock County images that had the imprint "B. Wrensted, Pocatello." After rediscovering these photographs and finding a collection of glass plate negatives in the National Archives labeled "Portraits of Indians from Southeastern Idaho Reservations, 1897".she was determined to find out more about Wrensted. She consulted tribal elders from the nearby Fort Hall Indian Reservation, wrote letters to people, checked business directories and looked through tons of museums and libraries in an effort to uncover the background of Wrensted and her photographs. The Idaho Museum of Natural History has a goal of demonstrating ways in which photographs can be placed within a historical context. Only 1% of Wrensted's images at the National Archives and Records Administration were identified at the onset of a digital library collection project. Once they were shown to the descendants at the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, information regarding families of origin were discovered and with the help of written records, 84% of Wrensted subjects have now been identified.

Scherer encourages the reader to "go beyond consideration of Wrensted's portraits as art," by advocating for the identification of the individual people portrayed in the photos as a means of avoiding stereotyping and the characterization of generic Indians as more "noble savages". "What sets Wrensted's work apart," says Schere, "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." According to Scherer's estimates, today 170 of Wrensted's Shoshone Bannock images are known to exist in various collections, with a substantial number at the Idaho Museum of Natural History. Wrensted's photographs of her Indian subjects were not left with the people of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, but were, as Scherer tells us, "uprooted from their place of origin and put into impersonal hands—namely, the National Archives in Washington, D.C."

Idaho State University - Benedicte Wrensted Collection:

View Collection Online


National Foundation for Danish America
PO Box 1003
Wilmette, Illinois 60091

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