These Vintage Photographs of Native American Life Are as Controversial as They Are Beautiful
While indigenous people have endured a sometimes complicated history in California, the contemporary filmmakers, writers, chefs, and artists featured in L.A. Weekly's Native American Issue recontextualize what it means to be a Native Angeleno today. Read more about them here.
In the early 20th century, when people were beginning to grasp the power of photography, the medium's possibilities seemed endless. Beyond portraiture, photography was suddenly recognized as a way to document entire communities and their ways of life.
For Edward S. Curtis, that power to capture a moment in time translated to a desire to preserve cultures that seemed on the brink of extinction. So he fixed his lens on Native American communities, leaving behind a record that's important in terms of its historical significance, the technical skill it demonstrates, and its aesthetic beauty.
According to the Library of Congress, Curtis’ work "is now recognized as one of the most significant records of Native culture ever produced.” His photos appear in “virtually every anthology of historical photographs of Native Americans.”
“Rediscovering Genius: The Work of Edward S. Curtis,” an exhibition at West Hollywood’s DEPART Foundation, features rare works by the photographer. The most significant of these: copper photogravure printing plates rarely shown to the public.
Curator and scholar Bruce Kapson has dedicated the majority of his life to studying Curtis' work, and is recognized as one of the foremost experts on the photographer's life and times. As Kapson explains, Curtis moved to Los Angeles in 1919 and lived here until his death in 1952 — so it makes sense, then, that the exhibition, which features 30 individual plates not shown in more than 100 years, take place in L.A.
Each plate would produce a photogravure print, which made up the book The North American Indian: Being a Series of Volumes Picturing and Describing the Indians of United States and Alaska, Curtis’ crowning achievement. According to Kapson, Curtis began working on the 20-volume project in 1898 and didn’t stop until 1930.
On a Saturday afternoon in the midst of installation, the copper plates seem to emit an inner light, even if it's just the reflection from sunshine streaming into the gallery space. Kapson explains that for so long the copper prints weren’t considered art objects in and of themselves. After finding correspondence between Curtis and his editor, F.W. Hodge, while working as a guest curator at the Autry Museum of the American West, Kapson realized their importance.
“Throughout that correspondence, Curtis’ main concern was getting the plates, the image on the plate, to be what he wanted,” Kapson explains. “So these plates actually reflect his most refined vision for The North American Indian.”
Bringing this beauty to light is one of the exhibit's main purposes.
“When you look at them historically and in Curtis’ own words, this is what he used to perfect his imagery, and he was most concerned with how these looked. These have been conserved — there’s no enhancement, there’s no sealant on them. This is actually what they looked like when Curtis was working on them.”
The exhibition also features other work by Curtis, including prints, so the viewer can contextualize the copper plates and see how Curtis’ images are manifested in different ways. Curtis' foray into motion pictures, In the Land of the Head Hunters (also known as In the Land of the War Canoes), plays on a loop in the gallery. Kapson argues that it's the “first feature documentary ever filmed.”
Scholars usually give that distinction to Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (which Kapson acknowledges), but Nanook has been criticized for a number of reasons. Open Culture’s Ted Mills explains that Flaherty might have incorrectly portrayed Inuit hunting techniques (in other words, staged the scenes), since the main character’s tribe had “long ditched the spear for the much more effective gun."
Curtis' work has been subjected to similar criticism. In the Land of the Head Hunters depicts Kwakiutl life, but some scholars (and outlets such as The New York Times) have called it a dramatization rather than a documentary film. Curtis’ photographs usually get the same critiques: They operate from an outsider’s perspective, they purposely make the figures seem timeless, they employ props, etc.
Kapson hears these criticisms all the time, but he stresses that the historical importance of Curtis' work and his masterful eye are undeniable.
“He was the first photographer to ever work with the American Indian as an equal and not an object of curiosity,” Kapson says. “He was the first photographer ever to involve the American Indian in their portrayal of how they wanted to be viewed for future generations.”
Another argument: Curtis didn’t have the easiest time trying to capture these photographs. And he spent significant time with his subject. A Makepeace Productions documentary called Coming to Light, for instance, reveals that Curtis spent three years living with the Kwakiutl, a tribe from the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada (that film will be screened as part of the exhibition).
“He was obsessed with saving the traditional lifeways of the American Indian for future generations,” Kapson says. "Even though it cost him his marriage, it cost him any money he would’ve made, it cost him his health in the end — he succeeded in doing what he set out to do. He saved the traditional lifeways of the American Indian for the contemporary American Indian, and it’s only through his work that these are a touchstone for today.”
When considering Curtis' work, it's important to take into account a contemporary Native American perspective. Muralist, public speaker and Apache Skateboards founder Douglas Miles is a tribal member from the San Carlos Apache Nation in eastern Arizona. While he admits that it’s “difficult to take away from the iconic power and tragic visual poetry,” he still thinks Curtis' pieces show a clear display of power.
“What if Curtis had given the camera to Native people?” Miles wonders via email. “What if Edward S. Curtis had allowed us to curate the photo shoots? What if Edward S. Curtis had Native people as assistants during his travels to Native communities?”
Kapson chalks up a lot of the criticism — at least what's generated within academia — to jealousy. Curtis found great fame through his work despite receiving only a “sixth-grade education.” He created relationships with magnates such as J.P. Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Today, Kapson adds, many Native American communities have used Curtis' work to trace their heritage.
“In instances, Curtis also did 10,000 wax cylinders of sound recordings of language ... and those wax cylinder recordings are sometimes all that exist of native languages," he says.
When Curtis began this project, Kapson explains, “Many tribes west of the Mississippi had already been on reservations for 30 years.” By the end of the project, it had been 60 years.
Ultimately, Miles says that now's the time for Native American narratives created by Native Americans.
"Because our art is the voice of Native American people, the type of work of Edward S. Curtis created is no longer needed," Miles says. "With cellphone cameras, we are all Edward S. Curtis today.”
Considering the current political climate, viewing Curtis’ work inevitably brings up a number of issues. After all, it depicts a historically disenfranchised community. And it brings to mind the struggle happening over the Dakota Access pipeline.
For Kapson, however, the aesthetic beauty of the images is the central focus of his show.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 18,” Kapson says. “I am still moved when I see that image on that plate.”
“Rediscovering Genius: The Work of Edward S. Curtis,” DEPART Foundation, 9105 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; through Jan. 5. departfoundation.com/rediscovering-genius-the-works-of-edward-s-curtis.
CORRECTION: This article was amended to reflect that Curtis' film In the Land of Head Hunters depicts Kwakiutl life.
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