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PORTLAND, Ore. — If you type the words “Native American” into Google image search, the majority of the results will be Edward Curtis photographs: sepia portraits of stone-faced chiefs in feathered headdresses and bone breastplates taken 100 years ago. Curtis gave the Western world its first glimpse of Native culture, but his staged portraits serve as little more than ethnographic snapshots freezing their subjects in time. In the intervening century, little has been done to put his body of work in its proper context.
With Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy, Portland Art Museum (PAM) is reexamining Curtis’s legacy by displaying his work alongside that of three contemporary Native artists: Zig Jackson, Wendy Red Star, and Will Wilson, each of whom has created his or her own dialogue with the images Curtis left behind.
When you enter the gallery, wax cylinder recordings of Crow men singing fill the space with low, plaintive sounds, leading you to Red Star’s “Let Them Have Their Voice” (2016). To make this piece, Red Star, whose work brings to light the forgotten role of Native women, made copies of fifteen of Curtis’s portraits and cut out their subjects with meticulous precision, creating ghost silhouettes from negative space. Because Curtis’s images are so iconic, the men are recognizable — the strong profiles, the single feather at the back of their heads — even in their absence. “Let Them Have Their Voice” gives the men permission to recede. We are holding their place in history; we can hear their song, but room must be made for Native women, whom Curtis seldom photographed, to come forward.
Wilson echoes Curtis’s tradition of large-format black-and-white portraiture in the series Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (2012–ongoing), using photographic processes similar to those from Curtis’s time. Unlike Curtis, who posed his subjects to his own liking and offered them nothing in return, Wilson collaborates with his sitters to create images that express something of who they are. Dancers from an all-Native troupe in Santa Fe are captured in performance costume and makeup, sometimes mid-gesture. As a way to rectify Curtis’s exploitative practices, Wilson makes digital prints of his photographs so that he can give his subjects the original tintypes from their sittings.
Jackson, who has been working in conceptual photography for three decades, uses meta-commentary to great effect in the black-and-white series Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian (1992). He gives us multiple images of white men and women standing impossibly close to Native Americans in traditional dress, shoving cameras in their faces as though they are museum objects. But because Jackson is the one capturing the final image, it begs the question: Who is the real curiosity? In the series Indian Man in San Francisco (1994), Jackson turns the camera on himself. In each photograph, he is wearing all modern clothing save for an enormous headdress, engaged in everyday activities, like boarding a bus that is plastered with an advertisement for the movie Geronimo: An American Legend.
Throughout the gallery, clusters of Curtis’s beautiful photogravures from his 20-volume tome The North American Indian are arranged to illustrate the ways in which he superimposed his Western perspective onto the lives and fates of the people he photographed. He posed them as savages, naked, with bows drawn back; or as shamans in ceremonial garb, summoning spirits from the sky. One photo, in a series that depicts his subjects as members of a “vanishing race,” is so dark that you can barely make out the line of men on horseback disappearing into their uncertain future.
By interspersing the work of contemporary artists with Curtis’s, co-curators Deana Dartt (Native American art) and Julia Dolan (photography) make a powerful statement that Curtis’s photographs can no longer exist in a vacuum. “It’s true that [Curtis’s] body of work is seminal in terms of photography, history, and anthropology,” says Dartt. “However, it’s not the whole story. It’s time that Native people are given the dignity of speaking for themselves.”
Jackson, Red Star, and Wilson challenge Curtis’s legacy not by tearing it down or dismissing it, but by beginning to fill in what he left out. Red Star reminds us of the importance of women in a matrilineal culture, Wilson offers agency and reciprocity to his subjects, and Jackson proves with humor that the “vanishing” people carry on, continuing to find their place in the dominant culture.
Several other American museums have Curtis shows slated for 2018, timed for his 150th birthday. PAM has done something extraordinary with Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy, making irrelevant any future exhibitions of his work that lack context or a perspective from the culture he aimed to depict.
Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy continues at Portland Art Museum (1219 SW Park Ave, Portland, Oregon) through May 8.