Celilo Falls by the Elite Studio

July 7, 1994 - July 30, 1994

Image © Elite Studio

Image © Elite Studio

Image © Elite Studio

Image © Elite Studio

Image © Elite Studio

Celilo Falls by the Elite Studio

Photographs of Celilo Falls by Elite Studio shows a natural waterfall and traditional Indian fishing site once located on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. In 1957 the government built a dam which permanently submerged the falls. Most of the original negatives were made by photographer Everett Olmstead and came from his Elite Studio in The Dalles, Oregon.

Some of the negatives were badly decomposed because of the temperature and humidity level of the storage environment. The result of years of neglect and improper storage is the emulsion wrinkling you see. The entire lot is now refrigerated.

The studio was founded in 1925 by Richard Brouhard. Everett Olmstead bought it in 1932. In 1942 Olmstead enlarged his studio to accommodate the rush of business World War II brought. After the war the Army built The Dalles Dam and he became the project’s official photographer. His images reflect many sides: construction of the dam, what it destroyed, and a detailed record of Chief Tommy Thompson’s battle against the U.S. Army program. Everett was at a balance point in the history, and he knew it, and recorded it on film.

In 1955 Charles Tays moved to The Dalles and bought the Elite Studio from Everett, who was advancing in years. Tays photographed Celilo Village just prior to the completion of the dam, capturing what he called the last Salmon Feast. The actual name of the ceremony is the Feast of the First Salmon. Tays also made time lapse photographs during the three days it took for the water to permanently cover Celilo Falls. Before it was harnessed for economic gain the Columbia River made so much noise that Indians used hand signals to communicate. Now it is so silent that others must speak for it.

Questions about the wisdom of flooding Celilo Falls recur whenever the pictures are shown The fish don’t appear to understand the new, improved Columbia River. For 11,000 years fisherman inhabited this spot. It is believed to have outlasted any other dwelling site produced by any other civilization. The loss of the falls removed the economic base of the village. In the last 35 years the population has shrunk 85% to its present number of 71. Today the chief exhorts the children to keep the village and culture alive, but youths must look far to find jobs. Although The Dalles is only eleven miles away, not a single resident of Celilo has been successful in obtaining employment there.

Today the photographers and the photographed are buried. Both Chief Thompson and Celilo Falls itself lie buried in unmarked graves. Although the cemetery is peaceful and the waters placid, complex conspicuous by their absence. As Indians continue to be squeezed by progress, schools train Native American attorneys, biologists and other professionals to be the warriors of the 21st century. Perhaps the loss of endangered sites like Celilo Falls can be prevented so that future generations will not need photographs to see what was destroyed for them.

The prints are a project of the Photo Research Group. the group included 25 people who research, preserve, print, and identify old negatives, and prepare and organize exhibitions. For this exhibition dates had to be verified and individuals identified. The Photo Research Group microfilmed every available picture of the falls to build a reliable data base. By archiving negatives and making pictures available to the public, we can help introduce the past to the future and make a difference today.

Thomas Robinson