By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
No one has ever accused Edward Sheriff Curtis of lacking a point of view, or of stinting on myth, or nostalgia, or overt manipulation. Yet, despite the heavy-handedness of Curtis' noble savage approach, or perhaps because of it, Curtis' famous photographs of Native Americans are today generally regarded as great art, often by people and institutions that wouldn't deign to sniff at Remington's flights of xenophobic fancy.
After viewing the 29 Curtis photogravures now displayed at PDNB, however, a subtle doubt slowly emerges: Are the photos or the life the real Romantic masterpiece? Curtis fits every cliché of the Romantic genius, obsessively pursuing and suffering for Art. He lost his youth, his money, his wife, even control of his work, all in pursuit of his dream to systematically document the "authentic" way of life of Native Americans before their contact with the white man.
Edward Sheriff Curtis runs through October 13 at Photographs Do Not Bend. Call 214-969-1852.
Best of all, the quest was by definition impossible. Curtis was born in Minnesota in 1868; like Frank Reaugh, he had little formal education, and he learned about cameras by building his own. After briefly apprenticing himself to a frontier photographer, in 1890 he purchased a half-interest in a photographic studio in Seattle. It was a pivotal year, a year that marked the battle of Wounded Knee, the end of the Indian Wars and the closing of the American frontier. Yet Curtis dithered, photographing society brides until 1898, when, on an expedition to Mount Rainier, he rescued a lost scientific party.
The grateful mountaineers included eminent men of science: the chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, the chief of the U.S. Division of Forestry, a noted naturalist, an ethnologist, a writer. Curtis was invited to accompany them to Alaska and on a second trip to Montana. He didn't waste the chance. He absorbed the ethnographic and scientific techniques he saw, which included recording native languages on wax cylinders. By 1900, when Curtis returned with glass negatives of Eskimos and Plains Indians, he had lit upon his life's work. Over the next few years, he began collecting material for what he hoped would be the definitive ethnographic study of Native Americans.
He, too, was late to the game. The Age of Exploration was at its end, and the cycle well-established: Discovery, Manifest Destiny, Absorption/Elimination of natives and last but not least the Grand Endeavor, that pseudo-scientific, vaguely nostalgic effort of the victors to memorialize the vanquished. By the time Curtis embarked on his G.E., painters, photographers and amateur anthropologists had been documenting the American Indian's demise for 75 years. Even the U.S. government was in on the act. While its left hand plotted to wipe out Native Americans, its right hand, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was collecting artifacts--in the words of one commissioner, "whatever of the aboriginal man can be rescued from the destruction which awaits his race." Painters, collectors and photographers had lived among the tribes, bicycled thousands of miles, bankrupted themselves, ruined their own health, even committed suicide in pursuit of the elusive quarry: an all-encompassing record of the American Indian. As one 19th-century photographer complained, there were so many shutterbugs vying to record a Hopi snake dance that the rivals were "kicking down [the] other fellow's tripod and sticking [their] elbow[s] in the next fellow's lens."
Curtis simply had the sharpest elbows. He understood the cardinal rule of artistic recognition: go East, young man. He worked his connections, hired a publicist, lectured. He enlisted the Smithsonian in his cause, hiring one of its curators to edit his project. He garnered influential fans, among them Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States and a sucker for Old West myth. Curtis' project appealed to the he-man adventurer in T.R.; as Roosevelt wrote of Curtis, "[h]e is an artist who works out of doors and not in the closet." T.R. boosted Curtis as he earlier had Frederick Remington, providing introductions and helpful letters. Thus Curtis was able to enlist the help of J.P. Morgan, who agreed to finance Curtis' 20-volume project and portfolios.
Curtis' efforts to "document" a way of life already gone consumed 30 years. Many tribes were already living on the res, but for Curtis, this was no problem; he decreed that "none of these pictures would admit anything which betokened [white] civilizations, whether in an article of dress or landscapes or objects on the ground." In other words, the work was heavily staged. Traditional costumes were sewn, rites re-enacted. The results were hailed as great science and ethnography, which they were not. Nor are the photogravures documentary, being to that noble genre as Joe McGuinness' book on the Kennedys was to biography: faction, at best.
It has taken almost a century for Curtis' work to be accepted as the art photography it certainly is. But is it great art? Curtis was a man of his time, which in his case meant a pictoralist, a heavily romanticized photographic style featuring dramatic angles, close-ups, soft focus, hand-tints, abstract backgrounds, chiaroscuro. He made some smart aesthetic decisions, among them the determination that "the pictures should be...of a size that the face might be studied as the Indian's own flesh." Some of the resulting portraits are arguably among the great works of the Romantic imagination. But you've got to ignore the manipulation to get there.