Edward S. Curtis

Edward Curtis is one of the earliest photographers to consider a synthesis of two theoretically resistant approaches in photography: art and ethnography. His most famous collection of photographs, The North American Indian, from which these photographs were taken, was commissioned by J. P. Morgan in 1906 (1). “He wrote in the introduction to his first volume in 1907: “The information that is to be gathered … respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.” Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian language and music. He took over 40,000 photographic images from over 80 tribes. He recorded tribal lore and history, and he described traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs. He wrote biographical sketches of tribal leaders, and his material, in most cases, is the only recorded history”, (2)

However, there is a representational paradox in photographing a ‘vanishing race’. Curtis’ artistic vision symbolically operated as clean and neat representations of Native Americans. Artistically, the photographs position the viewer as a voyeur, witnessing the final cultural breaths of these noble peoples. As ethnographic pictures, Curtis’ work only served to reinforce the position of the assumed audience. But in the early 20th century, photographs were regarded as indexical in nature, being a scientific record of reality. Curtis demonstrates that this perceived objectivity could be manipulated by a specific cultural vision.

Nonetheless, his efforts were remarkably comprehensive. He paired each photograph with a written description of the subject/object/action portrayed, along with its cultural significance. These photographs are truly arresting. I have chosen some of the more visually interesting ones, but you can browse more hi-res photographs here, which I strongly encourage.

Photo credits: Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis's 'The North American Indian:' the Photographic Images, 2001. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/award98/ienhtml/curthome.html