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Edward S. Curtis preserved America’s ‘Vanishing Race’ for Posterity

Aug. 19, 2013
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Through Jan. 5, the Museum of Wisconsin Art’s “Edward S. Curtis and the Vanishing Race” presents a magisterial sampling of the 19th- and early-20th-century photographer’s 20-volume work of more than 2,000 photos and written narrative, The North American Indian. As indigenous tribes disappeared, Curtis kept pace with their tragic decline so that America might understand the meaning and value of the nation’s original people and culture, now displaced, eroded and often outlawed.

His sepia, noirish images radiate the eloquent beauty that earned him the nickname “Shadowcatcher” from the Indians. Epic, brawny landscapes, such as Canyon de Chelly—Navajo, influenced film director John Ford’s classic westerns. His shadows caught proud, suffering visages like Princess Angeline, the last surviving child of Chief Seattle, at a time when Indians couldn’t legally live in the city named for her father. Cradled in a scarf, her face is the creased roadmap of a long, hard life. The photo brought Curtis fame he would parlay into the grand anthropological idea that would consume his life, family and marriage over the next 30 years.

While trekking up frigid Mount Rainier, the photographer saved the lives of a group of scientists. One of them was George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society, and the premier expert on Plains Indians. The grateful scholar would provide Curtis with access that would inflame the photographer’s imagination, insight and vision.

Curtis financed his improbable quest by gaining the support of President Teddy Roosevelt and art-loving banker J.P. Morgan, and by virtually never paying himself. Grinnell helped Curtis gradually win the native people’s trust, to allow his camera to explore the depths of their fading existence while retaining respect for it, says Graeme Reid, MOWA director of collections.

One delicately voyeuristic image reveals a large gathering of tipis for the sacred Piegan sun dance. The U.S. government had outlawed the ritual as “an immoral dance.” The photographer described the five-day dance as “wild, terrifying, elaborately mystifying. I was intensely affected.”

The religious ritual portrait Bear’s Belly—Arikara captures the Indian’s symbiotic, intimate relationship with wildlife. Engulfing his body, the bearskin virtually reincarnates the mighty animal, and feels like a coffin for the subject’s own passing. His face and scarred chest, defiant yet vulnerably handsome, is humanity infused with nature. A superbly composed image, Winter—Apsaroke, crystallizes the harsh Plains winter as a Crow woman, bent under a bundle of kindling, retreats to her tipi, partially encased in merciless creeping ice. The tipi entrance intimates a fateful black hole.

Curtis has been accused of romanticizing the Indian. Mostly, these photos feel honest, unflinching and far-reaching. As Timothy Egan writes in his biography of the photographer: “Curtis saw a moment from a time before any white man had looked upon these shores. He saw a person in nature, one and the same in his mind, as they belonged.”


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