I recently had the chance to watch a documentary about Edward S. Curtis called "Coming to Light." Along with Frederic Remington, he has created some of my favorite American art and it just happens to be inspired by my favorite American landscapes. The documentary reminded me of how much Curtis' imagery is responsible for our modern impression and vision of the American West and Native American culture. As the film points out almost immediately, Native Americans are using Curtis' work to rediscover their own culture in much the same way that all of the immigrants who followed (that is you) are using it as the framework for how they envision The American West.
I was not aware of some of the techniques Curtis used to create his photographs. I had never really looked beyond my initial impressions of the actual portrait subjects to consider how he went about composing the images themselves. And while I think some of the film's conclusions on his intentions are theoretical, it is still enlightening to think of his photographs as more than documentation but rather a combination of art, photo journalism, ethnography, and literature.
Specifically, Curtis was influenced by painters and a movement in photography known as Photo-Secession. This movement promoted the view that photographers should use additional techniques to make fine art pictures, not just take photographs. Photo-Secession was the counterpart to the British movement that had the same goals, but with the much sexier James Bond-esque name: The Linked Ring. The purpose of both schools of thought was to make photographs more emotional and give them the qualities and mood of paintings and fine art. Alfred Stieglitz and other cutting edge photographers at the time felt that anyone could take a picture and document something, but it took an artist to create an important and lasting body of work. Stieglitz and others used techniques like diffused and muted lighting, non-traditional poses, abstract and unique settings, out-of-focus subjects, shallow depth of field, close-up framing, and what we would call soft focus. These and other dark room techniques allowed a photographer to bring elements of the established world of painting, like impressionism, into their work. I recently wrote about some of the elements of historic and modern photo manipulation in an article called the Morality of Manipulation.
Once you look at Curtis' work in the context of art and photography trends of the time, you notice he was doing more than documenting cultures. He was telling stories, trying to create mood, and definitely looking for an emotional connection with the viewer. All of this came with Curtis' point of view that he was witnessing the end of these cultures. He was trying to tell the viewer that these photos were a glimpse of something that was vanishing and now ethereal. The portraits of Native Americans walking away from the view of the camera, posed in silhouette, or slipping into a canoe with dark-room-produced mist and shadows (using dodging and burning techniques) all presented the viewer with another story and layer of emotion beyond the actual subject of the photograph.
But oh, those faces. No matter what your view is on the authenticity of his technique or the staging of his photos, the faces of his subjects tell a story that no one can manipulate. The wonderful thing is that the collection ranges from small infants to elders and includes women and men. The photographs range from full costumed sittings and formal depictions of tribal leaders to wide view landscapes, ceremonies, and portrayals of daily life. Each subject is carefully placed with a cinematic feel in the wide views and the sheer volume of images of all types is staggering. (Check out a small sample gallery at the end of this post).
The anthropology geek in me also enjoyed a section of the film that shed some light on the less than collegial feelings between Franz Boas and Edward Curtis. Boas has long been positioned as the father of ethnography and hence modern anthropology. I have read (sometimes under duress) all of Boas' major articles and many critiques of his writing by current scholars--it is always fun to go back in time and pick on people in order to obtain a PhD. Boas had his failings, but also built a foundation that was incredibly important to the study of culture and physical anthropology. Boas found Curtis to be amateurish and untrustworthy in his presentation of Native peoples. He felt Curtis was doing a disservice to the general public with his sanitized and generalized overviews. Curtis was a commercial sell-out and Boas was a scientist. It is undeniable that Curtis' later projects, like his films and fundraising work, were sensationalist at best, but Boas was editing his own findings in support of his larger goals as well.
Despite Boas' critiques of Curtis, there were gaps in his own work. It is well known that Boas himself would sometimes overlook modern elements in cultures he studied--like the use of modern hunting tools and housing. He would even go so far as to remove structures from photos by masking them out of the shot or off the negatives. However, Curtis' images have proven more powerful than anything a qualified ethnographer wrote during this period. This is because you have actually seen Curtis' photos of the Hopi and Inuit people--probably without even knowing it. But how much Boas have you read? You have seen the landscapes of the American West and the Native women in their overly-formal costumes captured by Curtis, but you have probably not read a lot of Lewis Henry Morgan studies of kinship. Curtis has shaped your interpretation of what Native American culture was like at the turn of the last century, and Boas has not.
(Anthropology geek-out moment over.)
I own one authorized Curtis print. I am forever kicking myself for not buying dozens more when a gallery in New Mexico was closing many years ago. While the full 20 volume set of The North American Indian fetched over 1.4 million dollars at auction, the good news is you can buy reprints of Curtis images in many formats for as little as $15--or you can Google them for free. Despite the staged moments or possible historic inaccuracies, I find some of Curtis' work to be very inspirational both artistically and emotionally. They are worth owning and viewing, frequently.
He might have been more of artist than ethnographer, but his over 40,000 images offer up some important reminders. First, the photographer or artist is making the initial edit of reality based on their own interpretations of what is important. And second, photography is equally as important as our written documentation, if not more so.
(Third, bonus reminder, suck it Boas).