Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian
January 29, 2003 8:21 AM   Subscribe

'The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis is one of the most significant and controversial representations of traditional American Indian culture ever produced. Issued in a limited edition from 1907-1930, the publication continues to exert a major influence on the image of Indians in popular culture ... Featured here are all of the published photogravure images including over 1500 illustrations bound in the text volumes, along with over 700 portfolio plates. ' All that and a great links page too.
The Curtis Collection is also worth a look.
posted by plep (26 comments total)
Gorgeous stuff.
posted by gottabefunky at 8:36 AM on January 29, 2003

Very nice. Thanks!
posted by stbalbach at 11:21 AM on January 29, 2003

An absolutely splendid link. Thank you.

I'm wondering about what the 'controversial' aspect is, however.
posted by hama7 at 3:52 PM on January 29, 2003

I really enjoyed this link.
One of my favorite photos was this one(high resolution).
It would be interesting to see some of the photos touched up and maybe photo shopped to improve the color/clarity.
posted by keithl at 3:57 PM on January 29, 2003

Great link, thanks.
posted by patrickje at 4:42 PM on January 29, 2003

Thank you plep, this link is amazing. I particularly like this photo. Like hama7, I'd like to know more about the controversial side, if anyone has more information.
posted by Tarrama at 9:46 PM on January 29, 2003

I think that the controversy is due to the fact that Curtis's work necessarily reflects some of the prevalent attitudes of the time. Curtis seems to have been benevolent and sympathetic, but somewhat parochial. Such attitudes expressed today would not really be acceptable, as attitudes have evolved over time to be more sensitive.

The sensitivities page on the site expresses this well :-
'This online collection contains all of the images and caption text as originally published in The North American Indian. The captions reflect a perspective that Indians were "primitive" people whose traditional cultures and ways of life were disappearing. In his representation of Indians as the "vanishing race," Curtis echoes the prevailing view held by Euro-Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Contemporary readers should interpret the captions in that context. '

Many nineteenth century depictions of indigenous peoples generally need to be viewed with this in mind; the intent may have been to educate in a sympathetic way, but it was often done from the viewpoint of a culture that considered itself superior. The Pitts Rivers Museum in Oxford, which is a fascinating place, and developed out of one individual's collection, definitely falls under this category (for instance, they have removed displays such as shrunken heads from certain cultures after individuals belonging to these cultures have visited the museum and expressed concern).
posted by plep at 12:30 AM on January 30, 2003

(The Native American point of view was not given mainstream consideration for a long time. Books such as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee - which was first published in 1970 - went a long way to putting the Indian side of the story. Of course, Curtis can't be blamed for reflecting the attitudes of his time, and in fact one of the most interesting aspects of these photographs is what they say about white attitudes, as well as recording the lives of Native Americans).
posted by plep at 12:36 AM on January 30, 2003

Some of the photographs of rituals and ceremonies might also be considered a bit intrusive, especially if they were originally 'sacred' knowledge.

The Flight of Ducks is a great site and 'online documentary' which is about a 1933 expedition to Central Australia. One of the participants was the webmaster's father. The expedition came into contact with isolated Aboriginal groups. The site contains a warning that it contains culturally sensitive material, as the depiction of images of deceased people and sacred sights is offensive in certain Aboriginal cultures. There is a whole page of discussion of this issue on the site.
posted by plep at 12:53 AM on January 30, 2003

Thanks again for the wealth of resources! Much appreciated.

I had some more time today, and I spent it browsing the photographs, and I found some wonderfully familiar, thoughtful and artistically expressive portraits, much like other master photographic portraits of the same era in other parts of the world.

Although the eastern tribes like the Seminole, Cherokee, Delaware and Mowhawk were unfortunately absent, the only controversy I could see was that a non-Indian took the pictures. I didn't get the sense that the photographer considered himself superior, or harbored secret condescension. In fact, just the opposite. The photographs seem filled with compassion and respect.

The only remote comparison I can draw upon, based on my impressions are the Dorothea Lange photographs taken of depression era immigrants.

In any case, you've provided a lot to consider, as usual, and I thank you.
posted by hama7 at 2:56 AM on January 30, 2003

I agree that, certainly considering his background, Curtis seems to have been an exceptionally enlightened individual. It's possible that they are bending over backwards to pre-empt any offence, which is probably better than completely avoiding the subject.

There is definitely a huge difference between these photographs and the treatment of poor Sarah Baartman.
posted by plep at 3:14 AM on January 30, 2003

It's possible that they are bending over backwards to pre-empt any offence, which is probably better than completely avoiding the subject.

Good point. And a wise stance, given the potential misinterpretations which may very well be exposed.

the treatment of poor Sarah Baartman.

That's the difference, I think, between the Curtis photographs and exploitative circus-freak like attention, although I have to admit that 'Hottentots' have a fascinatingly singular outlook, and language that sets them apart from practically every other culture on earth.
posted by hama7 at 3:58 AM on January 30, 2003

Well, noble and sensitive or not, he staged the pictures to his own 19th Century studio photographer preconceptions, for one. And however great his soul, the captions are racist from a modern point of view, noble, sensitive, well intentioned and colonial and condescending--the sensitive civilized white man ponders the fate of these brown skinned 'primitives', these noble savages--as you will see upon mouseovers of the links below.

It would be difficult to conceive of a more aboriginal than this Mohave girl. Her eyes are those of the fawn of the forest, questioning the strange things of civilization upon which it gazes for the first time.

It could be an Boer talking about Zulus.

God, these, as gold tones and framed prints were once common as dirt here in Seattle, as Curtis came from here--in the 60s you could pick them up at garage sales and antique stores. My brother paid $50 for a gold tone of The Vanishing Race. Framed prints on paper instead of gold on glass went for $20. You could get framed Parrish prints still then, too, at similar prices.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain.

Gold tones are just wonderful up close. I have a tiny one of the stream in Ravenna Park taken in 1904 by Asahel Curtis, Edward's brother. A friend married to a lurker here has a gold tone of Son of The Desert. She's the best read person I know. I really like Mosa--my brother has this print.

Curtis was no ethographer and sometimes the costumes more theatrical than real...but still he did us all a great favor to get the traces of the old cultures while they yet breathed. I was just gaping at the Hopi women's hair dressings.

And to think we who settled this continent finally destroyed these cultures and traditions, these peoples, with the BIA school system. Oh, with what little wisdom the world is ruled...
posted by y2karl at 4:05 AM on January 30, 2003

More great stuff from plep - thanks! I have seen books or prints from the Curtis collection, but had never thought to look for this online so it's a great pointer to an important resource.
I think it's often the case that when a non-native explores an aboriginal culture, they can be accused of being patronizing or condescending, particularly in retrospect. I think these photos show a reverence, respect and honor of the native culture they are depicting - I am grateful that we have these historical documents since the offer a snapshot of a culture and way of life that has largely vanished.
posted by madamjujujive at 4:13 AM on January 30, 2003

he staged the pictures to his own 19th Century studio photographer preconceptions, for one

I really don't want to get into this, but were there any 19th century preconceptionless studio photographers who were working at the time?

The photographs are unbelievably stunning, and second-guessing them according to contemporary standards is an exercise in futility.
posted by hama7 at 4:25 AM on January 30, 2003

Curtis was no ethographer and sometimes the costumes more theatrical than real...but still he did us all a great favor to get the traces of the old cultures while they yet breathed.

Making yourself right by making me wrong is the exercise in futility.
posted by y2karl at 4:52 AM on January 30, 2003

I have a book of photos by Eiko Ishioka, they're of North African, Berber and Tauregs, mostly women--brilliant, lus, state of the art color photgraphs taken by the hottest fashion photographers in Japan in collaboratiion with for a coffeetable book for Parco.

They're beautiful and stunning, too, but they aren't anthropology. Which was my point about Curtis's work.. They're art but not science.

As were Curtis's--it's foolish to judge him by modern standards and he was a liberal for his times but he was a creature of his times. Remember he was taking these pictures around the same time as Plessy v. Ferguson, the ratcheting up Jim Crow codes and lynching was the favored form of political terrorism in the South.

Her eyes are those of the fawn of the forest, questioning the strange things of civilization upon which it gazes for the first time.

The pictures are beautiful but not all that far in away from Eiko's pictures of Berber girls in their nature--they're sumptuous contrived images but as to who the people in the photgraphs were or are and what they think or thought, it's just as much a mystery in either case. Beautiful romantic compositions opaque to the history...
posted by y2karl at 5:20 AM on January 30, 2003

That I have yet to find much of Eiko's work online is an utter frustration. Those haute couture faux ethnographic Parco poster books are the postmodern bees knees and I'm not talking bricolaged luggage tags, either.
posted by y2karl at 5:30 AM on January 30, 2003

George Rodger's photographs of the Nuba are appealing for a similar reason - a documentary record of a culture under threat. A lot of them were taken during a trip to Africa after World War 2. Rodger's outlook was much more 'modern' and humanistic than Curtis's, in that there's much more empathy (rather than sympathy) with his subjects...
posted by plep at 5:32 AM on January 30, 2003

Her eyes are those of the fawn of the forest, questioning the strange things of civilization upon which it gazes for the first time.

Frills aside, how inaccurate is that? I'ts not as if there were American Indian photographers, or even American Indian writers, as the continent was illiterate. I fail to see how respectful documentation can be deemed 'controversial', whatever 'preconceptions' existed.

Civilization; as in writing, science, and law, does exist now and we are all the better for it.
posted by hama7 at 6:13 AM on January 30, 2003

y2karl - thanks for the discussion about Eiko Ishioka - I will have to watch for her work - I would particularly like to see her photos of the Taureg, a beautiful people. I have a book by Carol Beckwith called the Nomads of the Niger (I had posted about another of her works previously and that thread includes some photos of the Tuareg too.)
I agree with your observations of the Curtis Collection - ugh, I guess I really never spent much time reading the captions, I am often guilty of that with photos. But patronizing & sappy commentary notwithstanding, I am just happy that we have any remnants, stylized or otherwise!
posted by madamjujujive at 12:30 PM on January 30, 2003

The aforementioned Pitt Rivers Museum has quite a collection of these type of posed photographs, and an interesting piece on the historical context in which they were taken.
' ... What viewers "see" in a photograph is largely dependent on the contexts in which the images are presented, combined with what the viewer already knows or believes. The second half of the 19th century saw the rapid development of anthropology or ethnology - the scientific study of peoples and cultures. Photographs like these were also seen as general representations of different tribes.Very soon after these two photographs were made, they were being offered for sale as examples of, to quote McClees' advertisement leaflet, the "race of red men, now rapidly fading away" ... '
' ... Although photographing "real" people, doing "real things", there is a strong artistic element in the photographs' composition which suggests a more romantic Western way of thinking about the subjects. This can be seen in the careful positioning of the figures within the frame of the photograph, similar to portrait painting, or in the sweeping skies and wide landscapes which suggest nineteenth century European ideas about wilderness and purity of spirit. So we see that these photographs are more complicated than simply a record of activities and clothing. '

Incidentally, I've really enjoyed reading all your opinions on the photographs (and that includes both of you, hama7 and y2karl). I don't believe that it's a clear-cut issue at all, which is one reason why this is such an interesting subject.

(While you're there, it's well worth checking out the museum's other collections too; it really is a fantastic place).
posted by plep at 10:34 AM on February 1, 2003

Nice addition to the thread, plep, and it's a great lead-in to other interesting pages, as you pointed out.

Today, I chanced on a collection of photographs entitled Indians at the 1904 World's Fair over at gmtPlus9 that is related to this thread. Many of the photos are depicting native people on display, but they document an era, albeit a sad one. I love the picture of the Acoma woman.
posted by madamjujujive at 7:37 PM on February 1, 2003

Civilization; as in writing, science, and law, does exist now and we are all the better for it.

Oh, especially the subjects of Edward Curtis--genocide, massacres, broken treaties, the Trail of Tears--oh, if I recall, the Cherokee had towns, laws and writing--and so on and so on...

Civilization treated them with such respect.

Yeah, right...
posted by y2karl at 1:23 PM on February 2, 2003

The PBS American Masters Edward Curtis page has ample resources on the controversy part, by the way:

Curtis Photography - Stealing The Soul Or Preserving A Legacy
Dressing Up, Whose Idea Was It Anyway?
Shooting The Sacred
Indian Life In Curtis's Time, Did He Really Show Us What Was Happening?

This was an excellent show: apart from The North American Indian, the story of his personal life fascinated me, especially his troubled relationship with his brother Asahel, who's more a name known locally. Asahel had no grand project but his work is a treasury of Seattle history.

Actually, plep, I'm nearly ambivalent as you on the controversies of Curtis's work. But it is beautiful and I have to repeat myself here: in person the gold tones of his work are... stunning? wondrous?
The mind reels, the tongue stands abashed.
I have loved his work since I first saw a piece in 1967.
I'd be proud to have this as a post on my user page, plep,
you did good.
posted by y2karl at 2:57 PM on February 2, 2003

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