As the author of The North American Indian, a 20-volume work documenting the history and traditions of many Native American tribes across the United States and certainly the most comprehensive resource on Native Americans at the time of its publication, Edward S. Curtis might have been remembered as a historian and anthropologist. In many instances, his accounts of tribal leaders and customs are the only known written records available. But a visit to the Monterey Museum of Art's current exhibit of photographs from Curtis' mammoth work illustrates why he is primarily remembered as a photographer rather than a historian, and remains situated firmly in the art world.
The exhibit Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian presents a selection of photogravure prints selected from the thousands of photographs Curtis took of Native Americans over a three decade span. Curtis documented people, artifacts and customs from over 80 tribes. Drawn from the museum's permanent collection, the exhibit displays photographs from regional tribes including the Coast Pomo, the Southern Miwok, the Mission, and the Wappo among others.
The sepia-toned prints range from classic portraits or people and artifacts such as baskets, pottery and other household objects to attempts to portray the people in their natural habitat. Some of the more striking images feature massive natural features such as mountains and streams, that frame and dwarf the ostensible subject of the photo. The harmonious relationship with nature is the real subject here. But to a modern audience, Curtis' style of documentation leaves much to be desired in the way of veracity.
One portrait of a young man crouching on a bank of massive rocks by a river raises many questions. It is an undeniably beautiful picture; composed with exquisite care, as the eye is drawn to admire the vitality and beauty in the figure's muscular form. But what exactly is he doing there? It doesn't look like he's fishing. He carries no hunting gear and is dressed in very little. Yes, it could possibly be authentic, but Curtis was known to have paid his subjects to pose for him, as well as to trade their everyday dress for a more "noble savage" look.
Moving from one portrait to the next, I was mainly caught up in wondering, what were these people thinking about? What did they think of Curtis' desperate thirty-year effort to document "the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind" that "must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost" -- in spite of the fact that the problems facing tribes were more of poverty than extinction. How did they feel about being urged into false poses and costumes to satisfy one man's ideal?
Curtis' highly stylized, pictorial photographs are the work of an artist, but hardly an objective historical record. And it is the modern museum's challenge to place these iconic images in context for the modern viewer.
Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian is on display through September 9th, 2007 in the Outcalt Photography Gallery at the Monterey Museum of Art.