CHICAGO TRIBUNE REVIEW
‘Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks’
“One Hundred Masterworks” highlights groundbreaking,
moving portraits of early 20th century Native Americans.
July 2, 2015
By Margaret Holt
A new retrospective takes the best of stunning photography by Edward S. Curtis to give a fresh insight on the American Indian at the nexus of America’s westward march and the cultural annihilation of tribes that stood in the way of frontier progress.
There is some general familiarity with Curtis’ standing as perhaps one of the great photographers of an era in American history that began at the turn of the last century. “The North American Indian” project was of a scale that probably never could be replicated in present times.
This new book is curated by Christopher Cardozo, himself an international expert on Curtis’ work, with essays by scholars and writers. It is a basis for an exhibition, “Enduring Spirit: Edward Curtis and the North American Indians,” currently at the Taft Museum (www.taftmuseum.org) in Cincinnati, Ohio. Cardozo tells the almost fairy tale-like story of how Curtis was befriended by President Theodore Roosevelt through an appreciation for his portrait work. With Roosevelt as a champion, Curtis approached financier J.P. Morgan, who put up money — perhaps $35 million in today’s dollars, Cardozo estimates — to permit Curtis to document the Native American culture. Curtis believed he was telling the story of a dying race.
At the least, it was a staggering effort that resulted in more than 40,000 negatives over a period that covered 1900 to 1930. Its focus was on the great tribes of the West, particularly in Arizona, New Mexico and the Plains states. Much of that work — Cardozo puts it at 90 percent — has to do with striking portraits of individuals who proudly bear the names of noble peoples, from the Navajo to the Sioux bands as well as the Hopi and Acoma.
The “North American Indian” project led to a 20-volume set of 2,234 original photographs and more than 5,000 pages of text with transcripts of language and music. There are primitive recordings as well. Only about 225 complete sets of the project are believed to exist, with most in institutional collections.
This new collection goes beyond, however. It represents what is described as some of Curtis’ most special work, capturing the best of his portraiture as well as reflecting his experimentation with various forms of technical approaches and print applications. These are not just stereotypical scenes of Indian chiefs and women. This photography is fine art that reaches the humanity of people, he says, soul-searching imagery that stays with the viewer long after the book is set aside.
Curtis was part traveler, part anthropologist. And, apart from his visual sense, Curtis was a tinkerer. Before there were multimedia experts, there was an Edward Curtis, willing to experiment with different types of production processes and even the latest technical equipment to record audio. And his colorful past included a fling at filmmaking.
Naturally, there are critics. In our society, we sometimes have a tendency to sort to extremes. We either rave about something or rage. Such is the case with Curtis’ work, which is both inspiring and sometimes inspires backlash.
In Tucson, the Arizona State Museum offered a show last year that featured works of Native artists. Some students from the Tohono O’odham tribe created a project in response to what they regarded as Curtis’ stereotypical photos of their ancestors. While the photos were lovely, they wrote, the students are not those people now.
Lee Allen, writing for “Indian Country Today” in 2013, said of Curtis: “For a camera-toting white guy wandering through Indian country more than a century ago, Edward S. Curtis didn’t do too badly in the photo department.”
This 2015 collection features some important essays that help give more texture to the photographs. A compelling piece is by the well-known Ojibwe writer Louise Erdrich, who zeroes in on the women of these masterworks. She writes of Curtis’ “intensity of regard.” She is speaking, of course, of the enormous respect that had to exist at the moment of that portrait that allows a viewer to feel so connected that the image is almost lifelike and real. “This is the genius and gift of the work,” Erdrich writes.
Erdrich also provides the context of the times. A 1905 photo labeled “Sioux Mother and Child” is so much more. Erdrich references an essay by Curtis documentarian Anne Makepeace, noting that these children are going to be taken from their mothers and sent to boarding schools run by the U.S. government.
This, then, was the time of a federal policy of forced assimilation, aimed at stripping Indian children of their language and culture by separating them from their families and placing them in government-run schools. Many families, to this day, have Native American ties to that experience and struggle still to reclaim language and identity.
A heartening thought is what Erdrich posits: “There is a flow of energy in these photographs that carries into the present.”
The images are timeless. Although the photographs were made nearly a century ago, they capture a spirit beyond the books that detail westward expansion and the cowboys and Indians narrative.
Margaret Holt is the Tribune’s standards editor and a member of the Tuscarora Nation.
“Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks”
By Christopher Cardozo, Prestel, 184 pages, $65