“I want to make them (American Indians) live forever. It’s such a big dream I can’t see it all.” – author and photographer Edward S. Curtis
Should Photoshop be banned when taking a picture for preservation purposes? Is staging acceptable? Costumes? How about editing out objects that don’t support your narrative?
Controversy over image manipulation and forgery has been around as long as photography. Whether heavy-handed practices muddy the legacy of one of America’s most important photographers 65 years after his death is just one of the questions swirling around a new exhibit launching this week at Spokane’s Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture called “Edward S. Curtis: The Grand Idea.”
The show, consisting of 80 images by Curtis, 40 historical artifacts from the MAC’s collection and 10 recordings Curtis made of Native American songs, will run from Saturday through Sept. 23. The exhibition is one of dozens being held throughout Washington this year to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Curtis’ birth.
More than 100 years ago, Curtis, then a society portrait photographer and Seattle resident, packed up his gear and hit the Western trails and rivers. The successful studio photographer for the genteel had become enthralled with the idea of traveling the West to document “the primitive customs and traditions” of a culture he thought was on the verge of extinction.
He found someone else to manage his Seattle studio and embarked on his quest to create a permanent record of the tribes of North America. The ambitious project was supposed to take five years. It stretched to more than three decades as he visited 80 tribes, exposed approximately 40,000 negatives and recorded more than 10,000 songs on wax cylinder. The New York Herald called Curtis’ resulting multi-volume work, “The North American Indian,” “the most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James Bible.”
The 40,000 images Curtis captured, many of them iconic, helped form prevailing ideas worldwide about Native Americans. His famous 1904 photograph “Vanishing Race – Navaho,” showing a line of horseback riders heading away into the shadows of a canyon, was named one of the 100 most influential images of all time by Time magazine. Curtis wrote that “Vanishing Race” symbolized the passing of a people “into the darkness of an unknown future.”
President Roosevelt described Curtis’ anthropologic endeavor as a “real asset in American achievement.” The project brought Curtis instant fame. The Spokane Public Library, which has partnered with the MAC to mount “The Grand Idea,” was an early subscriber to the volumes, which Curtis released annually for 30 years, from 1907-1930. But interest in Native American peoples and culture dwindled by the time he completed his volumes of text and photos.
North America’s indigenous people did not “vanish” as he had predicted, but adapted and thrived instead. Meanwhile, his 30-year obsession cost him his marriage, his fortune and even his mental health. He passed away in relative obscurity in Los Angeles in 1952.
Curtis’ colonial worldview – that the demise of Native American culture was inevitable – was not only flat wrong, it was also patronizing and harmful, according to several Native American history scholars.
Dr. Laurie Arnold, director of Native American Studies at Gonzaga University, is among the local experts whom the MAC asked to weigh in on the show. Her quotes, along with those of other area tribal members, will be displayed as striking reminders that the last word on Indian culture will come from real Native Americans and not from Curtis’ flawed white man’s perspective.
Arnold, who is an enrolled member of the Sinixt Band of the Colville Confederated Tribes, expressed gratitude that Curtis photographed people and their homelands, but she also shared her frustration with his “vanishing Indian” narrative.
“His photographs contributed to the idea of Native peoples as ‘a vanishing race,’ which relegated Natives to the past, a place where they could be idealized or romanticized rather than contextualized in the contemporary moment,” Arnold said.
But Curtis’ work also has benefits. “We are fortunate to have visual records of real people because even incomplete records offer opportunities to gain knowledge and to increase awareness and comprehension of the past,” Arnold is quoted as saying.
To add to the controversy, Curtis’ methods for producing his stunning images eventually came into question. He once famously used techniques of the day to edit out an alarm clock that sat between two traditionally clad Native American men. His work strove to frame indigenous people in a past Curtis considered more “real” or “authentic” than contemporary life.
One of the portraits in the show is of the great-grandmother of Yakima resident HollyAnna CougarTracks DeCoteau LittleBull. The image is of an unnamed woman on horseback, (typically Curtis only identified male chiefs and elders), dressed in the finery worn by members of her tribe. Her name was Isabelle Craig, and quotes from her great-granddaughter LittleBull and granddaughter Alyne Watlament DeCoteau will be shared in the Curtis exhibit.
LittleBull, a sculptor who is scheduled to exhibit her works at the MAC in August, has lovingly held on to her great-grandmother’s outfit nearly a hundred years later.
“For me, that (photo) gives me a chance to see my past and see those same items being handed down,” LittleBull said. “And we know that those were things she was using or wearing at the time the picture was taken.”
There is an appreciation from many descendants of the value of being able to see their ancestors in their own clothing, even if it was something they kept in a closet, observed the show’s curator, Brooke Wagner, registrar at the MAC. “If you are going to take what may be the only photograph of your life, you are going to dress up,” Wagner said.
Unfortunately, there are instances when Curtis provided long-haired wigs or Native costumes when subjects did not possess their own.
“This is where a lot of the controversy stems from,” Wagner said. “Curtis wanted to show Native people prior to ‘contact,’ so he would dress them, he would stage them and, in his mind, make them as ‘real’ as possible.”
The sepia-toned images of American Indians in canoes, fishing in rivers and calmly eyeing the camera live on in the minds of generations of Americans. The technique Curtis used, printing his images as photogravures from glass positives that he then etched onto copper plates, ensured a detailed and lifelike quality. Local photographer Don Hamilton will give a talk on Sept. 15 about Curtis’s processes as part of the exhibit.
The MAC will also host New York Times columnist and author Timothy Egan on Sept. 13 to discuss the award-winning book he wrote about Curtis, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward S. Curtis.”
While Curtis’ legacy is long and complicated, his intentions tend to be viewed more positively than negatively. That he was given access, even welcomed into dozens of tribes, is proof of that. His belief that the tribes were doomed likely came from observing the systemic persecution of Native Americans happening throughout the West during his lifetime.
“There was fear that Natives were dying from disease,” Wagner said. “That their culture was being eradicated by forcing children to attend (non-native) boarding schools, and by the outlawing of tribal practices.”
One can’t help but wonder what might have been had Curtis turned his camera away from the rivers and teepees. What if he had focused his eye on those other “real” Native experiences as well?
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