Curtis completed an immense body of work between 1900 and 1930 -- the 41 images on display, mostly from about 1910, are a tiny fraction of his work. He devoted his life to documenting American Indian cultures of western North America, cultures that he -- and most educated people of his time -- believed were doomed to extinction. He died mid-century, virtually penniless and largely forgotten. His work was rediscovered in the 1970s but was derided for its romanticized and stereotyped views of American Indians. His "vanishing race" thesis had proven to be totally mistaken and he was roundly criticized as a racist and cultural imperialist. But was he? Or was he a talented and driven artist who was immersed in the prevailing views of his time?
Clearly, Curtis had an ethnographic imperative in his image-making -- he believed fervently that Indian cultures were dying out and had to be documented "for the benefit of future generations." In this impulse, he was not alone. Nor were American Indians the only group thought to be on the verge of disappearing: culture workers dispersed across Appalachia to capture the "authentic" music, speech and life ways of rural Southerners during the same decades, while others aimed to hasten the acculturation of immigrant groups in city tenements and ghettos.
To satisfy his anthropological drive, Curtis posed his subjects with care to show hairstyles and adornments. He sought out individuals to serve as "types" from various tribes, even as some of his captions noted the cross-cultural patterns of trade and intermarriage that occurred between tribal groups. He consciously removed all evidence of Western civilization from his scenes so the images would represent a more "pure" form of tribal culture -- while acknowledging in his text that there was no such thing.
He photographed his subjects in traditional, often formal, dress, even as they performed prosaic daily chores, and for this he has been roundly criticized. (On the other hand, many people -- even today -- choose their clothing carefully when having a formal portrait done, because they know the image will be handed down to future generations.)
Even as Curtis performed the ethnographic salvage work his patrons and customers expected, his eye and his camera caught something essential about the people he photographed. The photos of people in canoes and on horses show a slice of tribal life from a century ago -- even if some of the scenes were staged and the assumptions in his captions wrong.
But the portraits are his most striking images. The detail in the faces of Curtis' subjects is amazing; most of them gaze intently through the camera at the viewer. The directness and forthrightness of their expressions seems to subvert the normal relationship between the viewer and the viewed -- rather than being passive subjects of observation and surveillance, the people in Curtis' images stare across the abyss of time to engage and even challenge us in a silent dialogue.
As the revisionist fervor of the 1970s died down, scholars began re-examining Curtis and his staggering body of work and recognizing the value of what he captured and preserved. In a recent article in Indian Country Today, writer Mark Fogarty notes that Curtis showed objects being used by people -- thus filling in the context that's lost when only the object itself is preserved in a museum. Curtis also photographed traditional food gathering and preparation, bringing the local wisdom of earlier generations to people still dealing with the fallout of social and economic upheaval.
The Indians whom Curtis photographed were not vanishing, Fogarty writes, but they were "the survivors, the ones who made it through war, disease, and the treachery of the government to bridge the generations. These ultimate survivors became the foundation, through their descendants, of today's populous Indian nations."
In the end, then, what of Edward S. Curtis and his photogravures? Curtis was a man of his time, and yet one with relatively progressive and sympathetic views of American Indians. His mission of ethnographic salvage was misplaced, and perhaps misguided, but no less sincere. He strove to create images that were not only anthropological but deeply artistic as well. The images should not be viewed uncritically, but neither should we expect present-day attitudes from someone at work a century ago.
The MAC show hints at the controversy that has surrounded Curtis but focuses mainly on the visual beauty of the images. The curators have let Curtis speak for himself -- wisely, I think -- by reprinting the photographer's own captions, while a disclaimer up front reminds visitors that those captions were not always factually or culturally accurate. A small selection of relevant artifacts and interactives round out the display -- the selection of tribal songs recorded by Curtis is especially poignant.
As an ethnographic record, the Curtis photos can be a valuable resource when taken in context. As portraits of survivors, they are dramatic and challenging. As works of art, the Curtis prints are an incredibly beautiful local treasure. n
Image And Imagination: American Indian Photogravures by Edward S. Curtis, featuring prints from the Spokane Public Library collection, is on display at the MAC, 2316 W. First Ave., thru Jan. 28, 2007. Visit www.northwestmuseum.org or call 456-3931.