Edward Curtis’ photos of American Indians shine in new picture book

By Mary Ann Grossmann

July 5, 2015

 It’s the quiet time in the publishing world when summer books are in stores and big fall ones haven’t arrived. So, linger over the photographs of Edward S. Curtis and then read on.“Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks” by Christopher Cardozo, with contributions by A.D. Coleman, Louise Erdrich, Eric J. Jolly and Michael Charles Tobias (DelMonico Books/Prestel and the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, $65)

Edward Curtis, who photographed Indian people of more than 80 distinct tribal groups at the turn of the 20th century, gets a bad rap from those who say his photos are inauthentic because some of his subjects were posed.

Christopher Cardozo, a Minneapolis resident who has written or edited eight previous books about Curtis, is considered the world’s leading authority on the photographer and his work. He and the essayists in this oversized picture book make the case that Curtis was more than a photographer; he was an artistic chronicler of his subjects’ spirits.

“The aesthetic, emotional and spiritual qualities found in Curtis’ most realized images are the cornerstone of his accomplishment as a photographic artist,” Cardozo writes.

Eric Jolly, president of the Science Museum of Minnesota, writes: “In these pages are hundreds of stories that speak from the heart of the subject/co-creator directly to the viewer. One is able to gaze across many lifespans.”

The book, comprising 150 color illustrations of vintage photographs from Cardozo’s private archive of more than 3,000 originals, is published in conjunction with a Curtis exhibition at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, on view until Sept. 20. Then it moves to the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa; the Palm Springs Art Museum in 2016; and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta.

These photos are haunting. “Kutenai Duck Hunter” shows a man in a canoe that seems to be floating between water and sky. “Waiting in the Woods” is an unsettling image of a man wrapped in white like a mummy. “A Hopi Man” with a strong face stares directly into the camera as though he’s challenging it. “An Apsaroke Mother” gently holds up the cradle board in which her smiling baby is wrapped. One of Curtis’ most famous portraits, “Red Cloud,” captures the old man with long hair looking down, lips compressed, seemingly deep in thought.

Curtis was as interested in documenting the people’s work as he was in photographing their faces. “The Blanket Weaver,” for instance, shows a woman in silhouette working at a huge loom set beside the long root of a huge tree.

As award-winning Minnesota author Louise Erdrich writes: “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 than elegiac, yet entirely harmonious, and they are often the most sensual of Curtis’ works. … There is a flow of energy


Pipe-Bags, 1908