Edward S. Curtis: The Artist And His Place In The History Of Photography

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Signed Curtis Portrait, 1908

Edward S. Curtis' work has become embroiled in controversy during the last 25 years over the supposed ethnographic validity of his photographic imagery in The North American Indian.

He has repeatedly been criticized for posing his subjects, manipulating images to show a former time rather than the times the Indian People were actually living, and even of being racist (The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions). All this misses the point entirely.

Edward S. Curtis and his work must be viewed in both in the context of the art of photography and of American history.

Curtis was part of the Pictorialist Movement. He was aware of the emerging theoretical and technical developments in photography. Curtis utilized soft focus, created dramatic close-ups, manipulated natural light, cropped images, and retouched negatives, all of which put his work on the cutting edge of what was happening in the field.

When viewed in this context, Edward S. Curtis becomes truly revolutionary in his portrayal of the Indian People. He was the first photographer to involve American Indians as active participants and contributing collaborators in the making of their own image. He was the first to portray them as anything other than objects of curiosity. Curtis was a genius of an artist who became the first photographer to utilize his talent and knowledge of artistic developments in the medium to depict the American Indian.

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Untitled, Unpublished Photogravure, 1906

One also needs to view Curtis and his work in the cultural context of what was going on during that period in American history. By the time Curtis began his study of the American Indian in 1898, the tribes west of the Mississippi River had been on reservations for over 30 years. By the time Curtis finished his monumental work, The North American Indian, these same Native People had been confined for more that 60 years on reservations.

When Curtis undertook his momentous work on The North American Indian, United States governmental policy had already irrevocably changed the American Indians' traditional way of life. It had forced their children into Indian Boarding Schools, cut their hair and banned them from speaking their native languages. With few exceptions, our government forbade American Indians' traditional ceremony, religion and everyday customs.

Their lives as they'd known them for centuries were gone, and existed solely in the collective memory of tribal elders. It was only through recreation and recitation that Curtis (or anyone else) was able to document and record their vanished race.

Still, Edward S. Curtis produced images of the American Indian that not only record real daily activity, but also, remarkably, are able to convey a dignity, universal humanity and majesty that transcend literally all other work ever done on the subject. In his photographs, we see images that are unique and are able to stand alone in the world of photography.

Curtis's images have gone on to become, cross culturally, the contemporary iconographic image of the American Indian. By entering into the popular public consciousness on an international basis, Curtis's lasting photographic vision has become the defining image of the American Indian held world over— a vision that never existed before it was documented through his lens. Further, the predominate contemporary image that American Indians hold of themselves may be traced back to this vision and photographic legacy of Edward S. Curtis.

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The Three Chiefs, Platinum Master Exhibition Print, 1900

By 1907 Edward S. Curtis was the most famous and popular photographer in the United States, much as Ansel Adams became later in the 20th century. He received funding from J. P. Morgan and encouragement from President Theodore Roosevelt, who chose Curtis to photograph his family, his inauguration, and the wedding of his daughter Alice. From 1900 to 1914, Curtis' mastery of the pictorial style and technique in his photogravures, silver and platinum prints was rivaled only by the most elegant prints of Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz.

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Alice Roosevelt Longworth Wedding Party, 1906

The onset of World War I diverted the public's attention from the American Indian, and the enormous project Curtis undertook—to document in photographs and text the remaining Indian tribes still practicing traditional ways—would take 30 years of obsessive work and sacrifice to complete, six times his original estimate of five years.

Over those three decades, both Curtis and his work faded into obscurity, to be "rediscovered" in the early 1970s only to become pigeon-holed within a narrow and circumscribed segment of the Native American art market.

Within the last seven years, Curtis' photographic work has rightfully entered the mainstream of the fine art photography market where it is now solidly established. Curtis is once again regarded as one of the truly great American photographers.

When examined in this broader context of photographic history, Edward S. Curtis then becomes, first and foremost, an extremely gifted and sophisticated artist whose work is, at the same time, an amazing document of a people.

Viewed in this light, the work of Edward S. Curtis ranks among that of the pantheon of America's great photographers.

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Signed Photogravure, On Nootka Sound, 1912