Western Art Collector
A new exhibition of 100 masterworks
by photographer Edward S. Curtis reveals the
spiritual lives of Native American subjects.
By Michael Clawson
At the age of 12, Edward S. Curtis built what would be his first camera using a stereopticon lens his father brought back from the Civil War and $1.25 in spare parts. The meager little contraption, and its very existence in Curtis’ young hands in 1880, marks an important historical moment in the life of the artist, as well as photography as a whole.
Curtis would later graduate to new cameras and new techniques, some that he pioneered, and eventually he ended up in Seattle, where he rose to prominence with his images of landscapes, portraits and of scenes of Native American life. Because of the quality of his work, both as an artist and documentarian, he found himself invited on expeditions to Alaska, Montana, Arizona and other locations to record Native American tribes in their own environments. By 1906, with President Theodore Roosevelt on his side, and J.P. Morgan financing his work, Curtis was fast at work on what would become his magnum opus, The North American Indian, a 20-volume, 20-portfolio series of books documenting the spiritual and cultural history of Native Americans.
Curtis and his works are the subject of a new exhibition, Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks, on view now at the Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Springs, California. The exhibition will feature 100 master prints—rare prints made by the photographer himself or his studio—and various other materials relating to Curtis’ nearly 30-year journey across the continent to document Native people. The show is curated by one of the leading Curtis experts, Christopher Cardozo, whose own collection of Curtis materials rivals that of many museums. Cardozo’s research on the artist, some of it starting in the 1970s, can be credited to the growing re-examination and re-evaluation of Curtis’ work in an artistic and historical context.
“This is my life’s work. I’ve been doing it for 43 years,” Cardozo says, adding that he first saw Curtis’ work in 1973 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, immediately after his own photographic expedition. Two days later he was in Colorado, where he saw more photographs. “I quickly went into debt to acquire two prints,” he says. “That was the beginning.” Today Cardozo—whose email signature comes with a Curtis quote: “It’s such a big dream, I can’t see it all”—owns a small holding of rare Curtis negatives, hundreds of historical items and ephemera, and several thousand original prints, including the collection that is now on view in Palm Springs. He’s written nine books on Curtis, including the catalog for One Hundred Masterworks. He’s also republishing the entire set of The North American Indian, which is intended for museums and institutions to use in place of their original copies, which are rare and quite valuable—only 212 were printed, and whole sets have sold at auction for nearly $3 million.
“Curtis is tremendously underappreciated. We’ve sent prints to exhibitions in 40 countries on every continent but Antarctica. We estimate that 10 to 15 million people have been exposed to Curtis through our works. We’ve seen people moved to tears around the world, and still people primarily think of Curtis as a photographer. That’s only part of the story,” Cardozo says, adding that he’s trying to teach audiences about Curtis’ role in preserving Native American heritage for new generations. “He really changed how people view Native peoples. And his story is not just a narrative about photography, but about Native people. It’s also a deeply human story.”
What’s immediately apparent about The North American Indian was the massive scope of the project. The 20-volume book series contains 2,234 original photographs and more than 5,000 pages of ethnographic text, including vital transcriptions of language and music. Additionally, Curtis shot film footage, including feature films and recorded more than 10,000 wax cylinders of music and language examples. And he documented a huge selection of Native tribes: Hopi, Navajo, Piegan, Apache, Dakota and Lakota, Kutenai, Haida, Arikara, Apsaroke, Nez Perce, Zuni and many others. Altogether, Curtis’ work amounts to a significant piece of the cultural record, one that nearly disappeared amid Manifest Destiny and Westward expansion.
“Curtis knew the lifeways he was witnessing were changing forever. At that time, there were still people advocating the extinction of Native peoples on this continent. Assimilation, isolation, disease…we did what we could to make them disappear, and yet Curtis was out there trying to preserve it in every way he knew how,” Cardozo says. “That’s why I really want to educate people about Curtis, because so many people think he’s just a photographer, when he was doing so much more, from films to wax recording to thousands of pages oftext. The photography is just one facet. He wanted his work to tell a deeper truth.”
Although other materials—including goldtone prints, original subscription agreements, original envelopes for the printing plates and a copy of The North American Indian—are on view in Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks, it is the master prints that are the star attractions. Many of them were derived from photogravures, a photoengraving process that is the result of a chemical etching onto a copper-clad engraving plate. Standout images in the exhibition include Geronimo – Apache, a portrait of the famous figure as he is wrapped in a dark blanket holding a spear; Cañon de Chelly – Navaho, a dramatic landscape with seven figures on horseback; Watching the Dancers, featuring four blanketed women with distinctive squash blossom hairstyles; Chief Joseph – Nez Perce, an iconic portrait of the leader wearing various pieces of jewelry; and The Vanishing Race – Navaho, one of the most recognizable Curtis images, featuring riders on horseback striding away from Curtis’ lens.
Many of the highlights of the exhibition are portrait works, particularly those of women, who are shown as they really were, with hints of quiet strength and intense vulnerability. “When I look into the eyes of the women photographed by Edward S. Curtis, there is an exchange, there is intensity of regard. Curtis mastered the art of making his subjects so dimensional, so present, so complete, that it is to me as though I am looking at the women through a window, as they though they are really there in the prints and in the paper, looking back at me. This is the genius and the gift of the work,” writes author Louise Erdrich in the exhibition catalog. “The women photographed by Curtis are so alive that it seems any minute they will change their expression; the hint of a smile will turn into a hoot or laugh, the frown into exasperation.”
In a catalog essay titled “A Collective Act of Stewardship” by Eric J. Jolly, president of the Science Museum of Minnesota and a Cherokee storyteller, a case is made that the photographs are still speaking to us today.
“As I think about the meaning of these stories and the intentions that these photographs represent, I consider that they were created against the backdrop of cultural assaults that included forced relocation, language decimation, and boarding school diets filled with commodity foods. In this context, these photographs are a remarkable means of communication that connect us to powerful stories told with great care by all involved,” Jolly writes. “Consider the stunning portrait of Princess Angeline, Chief Seattle’s daughter. She is sitting for this photograph in a city named for her father, the same city that, for a time, had prohibited all American Indian people (except domestic servants) from entering the city limits. How she must have felt to be there, to own that space? Her face is not one of resignation or exhaustion; it is a look of determination, pride and belonging. In this moment she posed for our daughters, for our rights, and for our dignity.”
It is stories like these, and many others, that have led Cardozo to devote his entire career to preserving Curtis’ work and sharing it around the world in shows like One Hundred Masterworks. As part of those goals, he has started a repatriation program that will present 10,000 Curtis prints to Native people around the country to “allow Native voices to contribute to the story of Curtis and his works.” Cardozo explains that Curtis believed in The North American Indian so much that he continued the project long after the world at large had moved on to other things.
“When the first World War began, Curtis went from front-page news to nothing. By the Great Depression no one had heard of him and he finished the project in obscurity,” Cardozo. “But he finished it, and today we can see why he kept going.”