The airbrush encouraged photographers to make improvements on reality, but before the invention of photography a great deal of trouble was taken just to porduce reality. In the nineteenth century, wnenever great Indian leaders visited Washington to call on American presidents, the Bureau of Indian Affairs commissioned their portraits so their likenesses could be recorded for history. Charles Bird King painted the portraits from his own charcoal sketches or from other portraits. Then, in a kind of Indian-of-the-Month-Club publishing venture, the portraits were copied into lithographs to be sold in sets to the public, but not before a middleman painter copied the originals for the lithographer. From reality to painting to hand-colored lithograph enough distortion was introduced into the portraits that one must wonder about the original description of these published sets as "Perfect Likenesses." The National Museum of History and Technology has collected the originals and their copies as a challenge for the visitor to detemine their accuracy. And for additional evidence they have included photographs of some of the subjects done twenty years later. It is a lesson in the vagaries of realism.
Perfect Likenesses. National Museum of History and Technology. From April 15 through Labor Day. Open daily 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. 381-5911.