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.
Seem like Curtis is the one being exploited here, drawn into a narrative as a foil for identity politics grandstanding. He received no money for his portraits, only material costs. Every day photographers take pictures of people with out “payment” – Humans of New York? National Geographic? your Instagram? – which is hardly “exploitive”. He used no coercion in his project. His photos uphold and even magnify the dignity of Native Americans.
Thank you for being clear about your biases.
Why the ad hominem? I’m just putting in facts where falsifiable accusations were. Seems to me that artists and writers who offer political critique as their work would appreciate a considerd response, even “criticism”. I’m sure we can agree on that.
That’s not ad hominem, and you should look it up if you’re going to use the term. But your biases are very clear unless you think you’re bias-free (you’re comment suggests you think you might be). Future comments with will be deleted if you continue made bizarre statements.
I suspect that back then today’s artists would take no exception to Curtis’s work and processes. And vice versa, perhaps. Different times; different norms, different correctness.
moderators should not be showing their biases instead they should remain neutral unless a posting egregiously violates posting standards. moderators need to be purer than Caesar’s wife. I seeing nothing wrong with sanna4bernie’s statement
Edward Curtis didn’t exploit anyone .
Edward Curtis gave his life to preserve and document a beautiful culture that he believed
In and wanted others to see and know about…. To educate. Edward Curtis suffered,
Struggled,and was penniless a good deal of his life…. Died penniless. It would be
Helpful if people who critic photography shows were educated in photography so
They would know what they are talking about. Stone faced Indians ? Everyone was
Stone faced in photographs in those days. Ignorance is bliss .
The debate on Curtis’s work has been going on for decades now, and I’m surprised at the eagerness of the PAM curatorial team to undermine his life’s work and integrity as both ethnologist and artist. The show, which I viewed last weekend, is what I term an NPR show – afraid of it’s own political shadow. It is full of inconsistencies and biased information – for instance, in Wendy Red Star’s naive installation (which relies on “wax cylinder recordings of Crow men singing [to] fill the space with low, plaintive sounds,) neither curator nor artist acknowledges in the piece that Curtis recorded numerous Native songs and languages during his extended stays with the tribes; he not only gave Native tribes a voice that still lives, he also created audio and film archives that are invaluable assets to contemporary researchers. Worse from a curatorial perspective, Red Star’s installation uses the recordings without attribution; given this, Curtis’s commitment to archiving is negated in what seems a willfully biased way. There are other examples equally as blatant – the curators cite the practice of previous installations of Curtis’s work eliminating biographic details of the sitters, but they do nothing to correct it in their own show, instead blaming Curtis for a practice he has(had) no control over. The show has had me steaming ever since I saw it, and I’m glad for this opportunity to vent.
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