NEW YORK - Edward S. Curtis spent decades and traveled thousands of miles to come up with a famously mistaken thesis - that American Indians, who he thought of as a vanishing race, "shorn of their tribal strength and stripped of their primitive dress, are passing into the darkness of an unknown future."
Now, a new edition of Curtis' work on the American Indian invites reflection on the many weaknesses of his work, along with a few strengths that pop out from underneath his overly romantic, staged photographs of early 20th century Indians and offensive attitudes about "primitive" people.
"The North American Indian: the Complete Portfolios," published last year in an English edition by the Koln-based publisher Taschen, is a sturdy, compact book with strengths and weaknesses of its own. By not using portfolio-size pages, it takes Curtis' photos out of coffee table status and into the realm of everyday life and easy reading. But its smaller size means some of the horizontal photos don't get the heft or clarity that a full page vertical does.
Curtis, after long and immense labors in the period between 1895 and 1930, published a 20-volume encyclopedia on American Indians (with the financial help of tycoon J.P. Morgan) between 1907 and 1930. Each volume had its own portfolio of photos. The Taschen volume reproduces all 20 of the portfolios, and adds a sampling of photos used in the encyclopedia volumes themselves.
Curtis has taken his raps over the decades, and it's easy to see why. His "vanishing race" thesis, which gets expression as a caption under the first photograph he publishes (which shows Navajo horsemen riding into the distance), is laughable, since the Navajo now number more than 200,000 and control an area of land the size of West Virginia.
Other flaws noticeable in the portfolios or pointed out by Hans Christian Adam in his introduction to the Taschen edition are the many dubious re-enactments of historical behavior, the offensive references to primitive people, and the carefully-staged portraits, sometimes retouched, sometimes using paid models, to achieve "intriguing, romanticized images of Indians in feathered headdresses, silhouetted against fluffy clouds in waning sunlight."
Often, it's better not to read the captions at all, and let the photos speak for themselves. Take "A Son of the Desert - Navaho," which shows a striking, alert young man, unfortunately unnamed, in a bandanna. It is ruined by a caption that speaks of "all the wonders of his primitive mind striving to grasp the meaning of the strange things around him." Another photo, this one of Quniakia, a Mojave, Curtis says, "serves as well to illustrate a man of the Age of Stone." These kinds of attitudes also serve well to illustrate a man of the Age of Stone.
Curtis is so often misguided that he seems like someone who has blundered into a situation he is clueless about - a kind of photographic equivalent to Columbus, insisting he has found China when in fact he is in the West Indies.
To get an idea of an alternative approach, consider the recent Grove Press book "Indian Country," by Gwendolen Cates. It is full of affectionate, respectful portraits of modern Native people, and contains some striking photojournalism on the annual Si Tanka Memorial Rides in South Dakota. In what seems like a conscious corrective to Curtis, Cates' American Indian subjects provide their own captions to the photos.
Adam, in his useful introduction, said Curtis is remembered today only for his wrongheaded art portraits of Indians. Yet his portfolios are also filled with many real-time pictures that seem to capture an impressive wealth of cultural and ethnographic detail.
Curtis certainly put in the time. He visited Alaska, California, the Plains, the pueblos, the Northwest. He took pictures of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Hopi, the Apache, Apsaroke, the Mandan, the Arikara, the Salish and Kootenai, and dozens more. He visited 80 tribes over several decades, according to Adam, exposing 40,000 negatives, preserving parts of 75 languages, and recording 10,000 songs.
It may be that Curtis will eventually be remembered as an energetic amateur anthropologist who liked to document his work with photos.
With some of the cultural events and lifeways he recorded, Curtis' work may even have importance. "Gathering Hanamh-Papago," shows a Southwest woman gathering cholla cactus fruit and describes how it is prepared. Considering the high level of diabetes in today's desert Indians, here is one photo that seems to demonstrate useful things that could be relearned.
Another striking thing is that the artifacts he photographs are often shown in use, and not just displayed in a museum. So the Southwest burden basket called a "kiho" is shown being carried by the woman who used it. Similarly, the beautiful cradleboards Curtis records have babies in them. A series of photos he took of Northwest fisherman also seem to show live fishing methods.
Curtis took photos of beautiful people and beautiful things. His shots of Northwest masks, totems and columns are frankly gorgeous. One, "Nimkish Village at Alert Bay," shows a house entered by walking in through the jaws of a raven. His pictures of kachina dolls and a Hopi snake dance are alive with energy and excitement.
Curtis' subjects are real people (often they are named), and their faces are real, no matter how they are staged as to setting and regalia. There is beauty in many of these faces, sadness in many, disdain in others, great strength in most.
The Indians Curtis photographed lived at a critical time. Curtis may not have realized it, but he did manage to catch lightning in a bottle through his thousands of pictures of American Indians. He was capturing, not the last relicts of a vanishing race, but the survivors, the ones who made it through war, disease, and the treachery of the government to bridge the generations. These ultimate survivors became the foundation, through their descendants, of today's populous Indian nations.