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Portrait of E. Curtis

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In an effort to chronicle a world that was rapidly vanishing, American artists and ethnologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries launched a variety of projects designed to reclaim--at least for history--the Native American culture so thoughtlessly destroyed during the two hundred years of white settlement and westward expansion. One of the most ambitious of these was the twenty-volume photo documentary compiled by Edward S. Curtis from 1896 until 1930 and published as THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN.

by E. Curtis.
The same impetus that sent his contemporaries Charles Wakefield Cadman and Arthur Farwell in search of American Indian melodies prompted Curtis to begin a survey of Amerindian life in 1896. With financial assistance from J. Pierpont Morgan from 1907 onward, Curtis began his reportage with the Apaches, Jicarillas, and Navahoes and ended thirty-four years later with the Eskimo tribes in Alaska. In those three decades, he witnessed even further inroads into the already tragically dwindling civilizations, and his camera captures this sad assimilation.

Controversial Work

Curtis' motives as an artist and ethnologist were not to stop what he viewed as inevitable progress and natural selection, but to record the beauties of what was disappearing. This essentially passive, observational approach has met with modern criticism from those who would have wished Curtis to protest the passing of the primeval landscape and its noble peoples, plants, and animals. Others--troubled by the prose narrative which accompanies Curtis' photographs in which he argues that tribal life is a regrettable but inevitable casualty of civilization--denounce the pictures as insensitive and distasteful exploitation. Nonetheless, if we remove Curtis' art from the rhetoric (on both sides) which surrounds it and let the images speak for themselves, we find not only an invaluable, informative history, but also an empathetic, even elegiac record of a people whom Curtis believed possessed extraordinary soulfulness, natural morality, and underrated skills of artistry and peaceful governance.

WISHHAM GIRL by E. Curits.
WISHHAM GIRL by E. Curits.

Curtis' lens pans the entire breadth of Amerindian experience: Native Americans farming, fishing, celebrating rituals, holding conferences, and creating art. In his portraits he often idealizes the sitter, endowing his subject with an inner as well as surface luminosity and compelling dignity. In his still lifes of artifacts he stresses the sophistication of the objects. In his moody landscapes he celebrates the memory of a wilderness scarred by the plough, the white hunter, and the railroad. In that subtle interplay of objective and evocative, Curtis' advances his tacit premise: that an Arcadian world is vanishing before our helpless eyes and that while Progress is a tyrant, Art is a redeemer able to salvage from the loss moral lessons to enrich the future.

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