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.
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.
The portraits in this exhibit have a beautiful yet haunting quality to them. The labor-intensive photogravure process Curtis used allowed him to create subtle variations in tone and focus. Curtis insisted on using only the highest quality materials and he experimented with a variety of techniques. In 2015 there was a city-wide celebration of Curtis’ work in Bend. Dawn Boone, of the A6 studio, gave a lecture on the photographs. She made an observation that one of the women portrayed seemed to be “softening back into the earth right before our eyes.”
Native American author Louise Erdrich has an interesting perspective on the women represented in Edward S. Curtis’ photographs. She said, “Women’s work is celebrated in Curtis’ photographs–women grind corn, bake bread, make clay vessels, doctor each other, pick berries, haul wood and water, gather reeds, dig clams. These images of women working are among my favorites, for they are more practical then elegiac, yet entirely harmonious, and they are often the most sensual of Curtis’ works.”
While Curtis’ ambitious project documented the tribes, it was not without controversy. He often staged portraits. Sometimes he mixed up artifacts and traditions between tribes. He referred to Native Americans as a “vanishing race.” Native peoples were losing their rights and their lands but many did successfully adapt to Western society.
There was a revival of interest in Curtis’ work beginning in the 1970s. He was an exceptional photographer, and he documented many facets of Native American life that no longer exist. Museums across the country feature major exhibitions of his work. Original printings of The North American Indian bring extraordinary prices at auction.
Historical and Contemporary Art from the Museum’s Collection
This new exhibit also includes basketry, beadwork, and leatherwork created by Native Americans of the Columbia Plateau. Intricate beadwork adorns bags, a cradleboard, and clothing. There are examples of different styles of basketry in this exhibit. Featured contemporary Native artists include Pat Courtney Gold, Roberta Kirk, and Kelli Palmer. Kelli Palmer often designs baskets based on photographs from the past—including those of Edward S. Curtis.
Native American cultures passed techniques for creating basketry and beadwork down through generations. Many items were utilitarian, but the makers included symbols and patterns in artistic ways. Contemporary artists may include materials such as commercial string and yarn in traditional and newly created patterns.
In the early 20th century, Native people were forced to live on reservations. Many lost their language, ways of life, and skills such as basket making. Children were sent to boarding schools and weren’t allowed to learn things associated with their cultural identity. Columbia Plateau people have been working to bring back the knowledge of cultural traditions. As new generations learn the traditions and art forms of their ancestors, they will ensure the culture portrayed in Curtis’ photographs survives. Pat Courtney Gold notes that basket making is not only artistic; it is an expression of and central to the revitalization of her culture.
This exhibit will be on display at the High Desert Museum through January 20, 2019. For more about Edward S. Curtis, see a series of articles I wrote here.
Close ups of images are from this source:
Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis’s “The North American Indian,” 2003.
This is a reprint of a November 2018 article in High Desert Voices, a newsletter by and for volunteers and staff at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. To see more issues of the newsletter, go here.