November 13, 2013

"The North American Indian": The Passion of Edward S. Curtis

Coups Well-Known, Apsaroke, v. 04

I have long admired Edward Curtis's intimate and dignified photographs of Native Americans. What I hadn't realized, until I saw the documentary Coming To Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians, was that the few photographs I had seen were part of a massive, 30 year project that Curtis undertook to extensively describe all the tribes of North America in 20 volumes of text with 1500 images. It was an effort that came at great cost, personal and financial, and it took the upmost perseverance in order to complete it. We are very lucky to be able to see the entire 20 volumes of The North American Indian scanned from a set owned by Northwestern University at this site. When you enter the site, you can browse any of the volumes, or search by page, or by image at this site. You can browse all the tribes covered by the work here. The images and quoted text in this blog post come from these sites. Just looking at the indexes online makes us aware of the enormity of the task that Curtis had set for himself: to fully document the traditional ways of all the native tribes of the United States and Canada, in words, images, and even sound recordings of songs and language. He took more than 40,000 photos and recorded 10,000 wax cylinders. In his forward to the first volume of 1907, which included the Apache, the Jicarillas, and the Navaho, Theodore Roosevelt wrote:
The Indian as he has hitherto been is on the point of passing away. His life has been lived under conditions through which our own race past so many ages ago that not a vestige of their memory remains. It would be a veritable calamity if a vivid and truthful record of these conditions were not kept. 
Although these words sound condescending towards aboriginal races, there is also great respect, and one senses nothing but that quality of attention and respect, and beauty, from Curtis's words and photographs.

Arikara Girl, v. 05

Curtis was determined to "picture all features of Indian life and environment" of all the important tribes; the 20 volumes contain information on over 100 tribes. In his general introduction Curtis's sense of urgency for his great work comes from his feeling, described in his introduction, that all will soon be lost: 
The great changes in practically every phase of the Indian's life that have taken place, especially within recent years, have been such that had the time for collecting much of the material, both descriptive and illustrative, herein recorded, been delayed, it would have been lost forever. The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rights possessed by no other....

Plenty Coups, Apsaroke, v. 04

I wondered, while watching the documentary, how suspicious these peoples were of Curtis and his assistants: did they feel intruded upon, manipulated? Curtis recounts how difficult it was to overcome suspicion of them as strangers. But he was nothing if not persistent, and we can see in his sensitive portraits of individuals an empathy, even a love, in the way they are portrayed. When the subjects are named, as in the portrait of Plenty Coups, there is a biographical sketch of the person. He was born in 1847. When he was sixteen his brother was killed by the Sioux and he climbed a mountain: "the spirits dwelt there and I sought their power." He was a great warrior and became chief in 1903. 

A Walpi Man, v. 12

When I searched the term Walpi, which is a place in the Southwest, on the Northwestern University website, I saw extensive documentation of the tribes and pueblos, the ruins, the list of "principal informants", genealogies, and marriages. What I am struck by, however, is the intense humanity and deep feeling Curtis was able to elicit in his photographs. 

Nootka Woman Wearing Cedar Bark Blanket, v. 11

There is a serene dignity, even simple grandeur in this portrait.

A Taos Woman, v. 16

In this romantic portrait I see more of the pictorialist tradition, a soft painterly rendering of a beautiful woman.

Saguaro Fruit Gatherers, Maricopa, v. 02

In addition to portraits, Curtis's text is richly illustrated with various aspects of daily life. Here women are gathering the fruit of this giant cactus "which they relish in its natural state as well as in the form of wine or preserve." There is marvelous drama in this image of women dwarfed by the cactus rising above them. 

Pomo Seed Gathering Utensils, v. 14

Curtis also demonstrates a strong compositional sense in a still life of baskets for seeds and nuts.

The Rush Gatherer, Kutenai, v. 07

His feeling for the landscape is deep and mysterious. It may be that he learned a great deal from his Native American friends/subjects. As he wrote in his introduction:
It is thus near to Nature that much of the life of the Indian still is; hence its story, rather than being replete with statistics commercial conquests, is a record of the Indian's relations with and his dependence on the phenomena of the universe––the trees and shrubs, the sun and starts, the lightening and rain,––for these to him are animate creatures. Even more than that, they are deified, therefore are revered and propitiated, since upon them man must depend for his well-being.
How much better off we might be with a little more of this attitude in our contemporary culture. 

The Primitive Artist, Paviotso, v. 15

Curtis had an anthropologist working with him, Frederick Webb Hodge, who edited the volumes. While the artistry of Curtis's photographs is clear, his work as an anthropologist has been questioned. He carried a beaded shirt that appears in several photographs; there is evidence of his ridding a photo of a contemporary object, an alarm clock. The description for this photograph describes it as a glaciated boulder "covered with phallic symbols in faded red". I wonder if the zigzag lines or the radiating lines topped with small circles could all be phallic; they seem to have a wider reference to me. 

As It Was in the Old Days, v. 19

One of the great tragedies of the opening of the American West was the indiscriminate slaughter of the huge herds of bison that lived on the plains. Curtis described the importance of the bison:
The bison was not only the chief source of food of the Plains Indians, but its skin was made into clothing, shields, packs, bags, snowshoes, and tent and boat covers; the horns were fashioned into spoons and drinking vessels; the sinew was woven into reatas, belts, ornaments, and the covers of sacred bundles; and the dried droppings, "buffalo chips", were used as fuel. So dependent on the buffalo were these Indians that it became sacred to them, and many were the ceremonies performed for the purpose of promoting the increase of the herds.

Yakotlus, Quatsino, v. 10

We are very lucky to have these volumes: when Curtis completed the work in 1930 he was broke; he'd made no money from this massive effort, which was largely forgotten until a revival of interest came in the 1970s. From watching the film Coming to Light, which had many interviews with Native Americans, some direct descendants of Curtis's subjects, I got the sense that his work was appreciated in their communities, that it gave them a valuable connection to their past. In an essay about Curtis, who was called "Shadow Catcher" by some tribes, on the PBS website, George Horse Capture, a Native American anthropologist, wrote about this work:
As one admires the beauty of the Curtis photographs they must be placed in a proper perspective. In spite of the dedication and hardships the photographer had to endure, the ultimate beauty of "The North American Indian" lies not only with the genius of Curtis, but also and most importantly, within his subjects. The native beauty, strength, pride, honor, dignity and other admirable characteristics may have been recorded by photographic techniques, but they were first an integral part of the people. 
In his honoring of the Native American peoples, I believe that Curtis would agree with Horse Capture's assessment, but as an artist I have to say that the beauty of Curtis's work also came from his sensitive eye, his unerring sense of composition and light. His photographs are moving not only because of the subjects, but also because the photographer was a consummate artist. 

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