The Photographs of Edward S. Curtis in the By Her Hand Exhibit
This exhibition features portraits of Native women by photographer Edward S. Curtis from the collection of Christopher G. Cardozo. Curtis took the featured photographs over a 30-year period as part of a project to document Native American’s lifestyle and culture in a time of change. Curtis traveled across North America from 1900 to 1930 photographing over 80 tribes.
By Her Hand Exhibit of Edward S. Curtis Photos, High Desert Museum, Bend, Oregon
Edward S. Curtis worked out of a studio in Seattle, Washington and received financial support from J. P. Morgan. Curtis collected information about the lives of each tribe through photographs, writings, and audio recordings. With the help of Native translators, he assembled a 20-volume set titled The North American Indian. Curtis intended to publish 500 copies but due to a series of financial and personal setbacks, only about 272 were printed. Ninety percent of the original sets are owned by institutions, including the High Desert Museum.
Did you know that a princess is buried at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle? I bet many people don’t even know who she was. The woman known as “Princess Angeline” was the daughter of Chief Sealth, aka Chief Seattle or Chief Si’ahl. Born in the early 1800’s, she passed away on May 31, 1896.
I posted a nine-part essay on photographer Edward S. Curtis last year and in Part 3, recalled the importance of Princess Angeline to Curtis’ future career. She was the first Native American that he photographed. He entered several pictures of tribal members in a National Photographic Society contest. Consequently, one photograph won the grand prize and a gold medal.
Images by Edward S. Curtis are still being pushed out into the world. There are many inexpensive prints available. In the last presentation of the Curtis Fever series, Dr. Julia Dolan wondered what Edward S. Curtis conclusions would be over this citywide event. She wondered what the tribes thought about it as well. Though Curtis photographed native peoples because he thought they were vanishing, that idea was wrong since they still exist. An advertisement for a TV show showing a portrait of Curtis on a bed stand was shown. It was from a program called, “The New Normal”. Ironically, it has become the new normal to see pictures of Curtis and the photos he took all over the world thanks to the Internet.
It was assumed that all of Edward S. Curtis’ photogravure copper plates were lost or destroyed. It’s common practice to destroy the plates after the initial printing so more can’t be made. However, many were sold to the Charles E. Lauriat Company in Boston. In 1972, decades after he passed away, there was a Edward S. Curtis discovery surprise. A treasure trove of Curtis’ work was discovered in the Lauriat basement by photographer Karl Kernberger. This cache included 19 complete bound sets of The North American Indian, thousands of paper prints, copper plates, unbound pages, and the original glass plate negatives. It’s important to realize how significant this discovery was. This collection subsequently passed through several hands. In 2005, Kenneth Zerbe purchased the copper plates. New prints were eventually made from the plates. However, they aren’t printed on the high quality Van Gelder paper favored by Curtis.
Contemporary Native Americans
In recent times, Christopher Cardozo has launched a repatriation project to return some of Curtis’ works to Native American people. As a result of this work, we now know the names of 3,500 people featured in the photographs.
Three contemporary Native American photographers, and their responses to Edward S. Curtis’ work, will be the subject of an upcoming exhibit. The exhibit runs from February 6, 2016 to May 8, 2016 at the Portland Art Museum. Photographs from Zig Jackson, Wendy Red Star, and Will Wilson will be featured in the exhibit.
Each artist responded in different ways to the Curtis photographs. Zig Jackson noted that people still “take” a photograph of Native Americans. He even pokes a little fun at this concept in one of his pictures entitled Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian. Several volumes of The North American Indian will also be displayed in the upcoming exhibit. Digitized versions of Curtis’ original audio recordings of native language and song will be a part of the exhibit. The Museum is also trying to crowdsource a way for descendants of people featured in The North American Indian to be able to input information about themselves and their ancestors.
There is controversy surrounding Edward Curtis’ work. Some think the photos were staged and that they degraded and dehumanized the people into mere caricatures. Some think he dressed the people portrayed in a certain way; others say they actually dressed in the clothing they wished to be photographed in. Oftentimes they are portrayed wearing traditional clothing that had been outlawed for them to wear. In Geronimo’s case, he is pictured wrapped in an Army blanket because that is all the white man gave him.
Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian
In the 2000 film, Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, many present-day Native Americans were interviewed in regards to Curtis and his work. It has deeply affected modern day tribal members. Some treasure the images and recordings as reminders of their ancestors while others want references to that time to be over. One of the people interviewed about the images remarked that “the world came alive again when viewing them.” During that period in history Native Americans could be thrown in jail for wearing their traditional clothing, speaking their language, and practicing their rituals.
In 1914, Edward S. Curtis’ film, In the Land of the Head-Hunters, featuring the Kwakiutl tribe, was shown to theater audiences. He worked on the film with George Hunt, an adopted member of the tribe. Hunt had been indispensable when he had worked for anthropologist Franz Boaz. The Kwakiutl tribe is from Vancouver Island and they rely on salmon fishing for their way of life. However, Curtis had them pretend to hunt whale in the film. Creating the film had its hardships including an incident when Curtis was dropped off on an “island” that flooded with the incoming tides. It left him waist-deep in water through the night.
The film includes a potlatch ceremony because Curtis thought filming it would be very dramatic. The Kwakiutl culture carved elaborate totem poles, canoes, and longhouse buildings. Tribal members wore full-body ceremonial garb made from wood, feathers, and skins that represented animals.
Edward S. Curtis married Clara S. Phillips in 1892 and they had four children together. His photography work took him away from home for long periods of time. Due to his long absences and the financial drain on the business, Clara divorced him in 1916 and gained full custody of their children. Edward S. Curtis’ life changed dramatically and he moved into the Rainier Club in Seattle. He paid for room and board by taking portraits of its wealthy members. At the time of the divorce, many negatives were lost because both Clara and Edward S. Curtis destroyed them rather than see the other person own them.
In the 1920s, Curtis worked briefly in the motion picture business. He worked on Tarzan movies and in 1923 worked on The Ten Commandments with director Cecil B. DeMille. After a few years in the business he went back to working on The North American Indian project, though on a much smaller scale. He took his daughter, Florence, with him into the field.
Curtis decided to make it his life mission to document the tribes of North America. He thought they were on the point of vanishing. At one point he went to the Smithsonian to ask for financing but they told him, “We have experts here; some have even been to Indian country”. They preferred to work with researchers with credentials from academia. The Smithsonian also told Curtis that the Native Americans had no religion and it is interesting to note that Curtis documented that everything done by the people featured in the books is done to a sacred and spiritual point.
Curtis approached financier and banker J.P Morgan about financing the project but was turned down at first. He pulled out some of his photos and Morgan was so impressed by them that he offered to finance him with an initial investment of $75,000. Morgan was particularly impressed by the photo of a girl entitled Mosa-Mohave.
Edward S. Curtis was born in Wisconsin in 1868. Two years before he was born, the Indian Wars were taking place. There were 200 battles in an eleven-year period. His father, Reverend Asahel “Johnson” Curtis, served in the military but was injured in the Civil War. He worked as a traveling pastor for a while until his health deteriorated. The Curtis family lived in abject poverty on a farm. Edward and his father moved to the Seattle area in Washington State and built a cabin near Port Orchard. Sadly, the reverend passed away on the day his wife moved there in 1887. These early life experiences in the Edward S. Curtis history affected his work.
Though Edward only completed sixth grade, his intelligence and drive helped him go on to become famous for documenting Native Americans at a time when many thought they should be eliminated. In the process, he used techniques in photography development and printing that brought his subjects to life. Of the 50,000 negatives that he made, only around 1,000 are known to still exist. He also made 10,000 sound recordings on wax cylinders documenting the language and songs of many of the tribes he encountered. About 800 of the cylinders still exist. His film on the Kwakiutl (now known as Kwakwaka’wakw) was the first to use actual tribal members.
The North American Indian books include many photographs and the larger size portfolios contain additional images. The images are never referred to in the text. Edward S. Curtis photo techniques sometimes involved waiting weeks to capture the right image. He was aware of the effect photographing from different angles would have on the subject matter. In some of the pictures he photographed subjects from low camera angles with the camera pointing upwards while in others he focused just below the axis of the eyes.
The Old Klamath Woman portrait shows the eyes in sharp focus but the image softens out by the time you get to the cheekbones. As Dawn Boone of A6 observed, the woman pictured is “softening back into the earth right before our eyes.” There is a certain determination expressed in the faces of some of the people even though they had been living against a background of loss.
Events and exhibits related to photographer Edward S. Curtis were located all over Bend. Edward S.Curtis Fever took place in September and October. Curtis documented Native American tribes living in many parts of North America in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Part of his work is featured in the 20-volume set of books and 20 separate large-format portfolios entitled Edward S. Curtis’s:The North American Indian. An estimated 10,000 people were featured in his work.