Art

A Critical Understanding of Edward Curtis’s Photos of Native American Culture

A massive installation at the Muskegon Museum of Art displays Edward Curtis’s entire ethnographic survey of surviving Native American culture at the turn of the 20th century.

Plate from The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis at the Muskegon Museum of Art (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

MUSKEGON, Mich. — Can one come to a revelation through a visit to an art museum, or is it something that can only be arrived at through a more intensive personal journey? This is the question that emerged for me as I visited the Muskegon Museum of Art for Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian, a massive installation of the 30-year-plus ethnographic survey of surviving Native American culture by turn-of-the-20th-century, Seattle-based photographer Edward S. Curtis.

Edward Curtis, self-portrait

The North American Indian is a seminal and controversial blend of documentary and staged photography — one which contributes to much of the foundational imagery and, often-stereotypical, understanding possessed by white America about some 82-plus native tribes that the United States eradicated over a century of colonization. Much has been made about the complexities, contradictions, and conflicts of interest in Curtis’s masterwork, by Native and non-Native scholars. Some argue that in staging photographs and, at times, adding props or accessories, Curtis took liberties with the concept of ethnography, both imposing and reinforcing white notions of Native American appearances and culture. Others argue that without Curtis, there would be hardly any extant imagery of the cultural heritage of the tribes he worked with.

The Curtis exhibition at the Muskegon Museum of Art raised, for me, compelling questions around our individual and institutional tendencies to justify the art that we find interesting. It is undeniable that the 723 portfolio images lining the walls of the Musekegon’s galleries — as well as a 20-volume edition gathering 1,500 additional photos and ethnographic research carried out by Curtis in cooperation with tribes west of the Missouri River — represent a remarkable accomplishment. They are fascinating photos, and managed to chronicle what Curtis called, “the lifeways and mores of all the tribes who were still relatively intact from the colonialism and the invasion of Anglo culture.” Beyond ethnography, many of them are also formally beautiful works of art.

Plate from Edward Curtis’s The North American Indian

The Muskegon Museum has personal reason to take pride in this exhibition — the museum is in possession of the collection because of Lulu Miller, the first female director of the adjacent Hackley Library and second director of the Muskegon Art Museum (appointed in 1916, being the second woman in the US to run an art museum). In 1908, as her first acquisition for the library, Miller sourced $3,000 to purchase a subscription to Curtis’s series, which was issued in 20 volumes and would ultimately take 30 years to complete — an incredible gamble when you consider that sum is equivalent to $80,000 today, and certainly a tidy sum for a regional library. The Muskegon Museum of Art owns one of the estimated 225 sets of The North American Indian (many of which are likely incomplete), and this exhibition is one of very few that has put the collection on display in its entirety. The final volume arrived in late 1930, bracketing Miller’s career with the library and museum, and in the 1970s was transferred from the library to the purview of the art museum for conservation efforts.

Hackley Public Library in Muskegon, Michigan

“We think she was pretty gutsy,” said Muskegon Museum of Art’s executive director Judith Haynor, in reference to Miller. “We have a variety of letters from Curtis to Lulu, and from his staff — they had a lively correspondence. There have been 200 or more exhibitions of selections of Curtis’s work, but from what we can ascertain, never before has the entire body of work been put out on display.”

However, the hometown pride in the visionary Lulu Miller — not to mention the more generalized sense of wonder at the beauty and exoticism of Curtis’s imagery — has perhaps skewed the museum’s framing of the appropriateness and relevance of Curtis’s work. The prevailing view here is that the photographs’ issues are a product of their time, and that they are nonetheless of educational value, particularly in our current climate.

Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian, installation view at the Muskegon Museum of Art

“I think that these images clearly show someone who began to understand more deeply the importance and uniqueness of the American Indian cultures,” said guest curator Ben Mitchell, who worked on the exhibition for some two years. “You can find this in his writing, that he came to understand that white America had something really poignant and important to learn from Native American culture, especially the depth of the spirituality. And I think about the times that we live in right now, in a time of name-calling, when our major political leadership is scapegoating people who are not white. Deportation is up 38% in just the last four months. The point is, I think, that Curtis, through The North American Indian, realized that white America had something to learn.”

Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian, installation view, including a display featuring a camera of the type Curtis hauled, along with boxes of glass negatives

The museum has gone to great lengths to ensure deft handling of the subject matter, including engagement with the local Little River Band of Ottowa Indians, located in Manistee, Michigan (too far east to have been included in Curtis’s work). Tribal Chief Larry Romanelli served as an advisor to the exhibition, and appeared with other Native American participants in panel discussions and programming that accompanied the exhibition. His view of the exhibition is positive, and echoes a sentiment presented in some of the voluminous wall texts accompanying the imagery: that Curtis captured humanity and heritage that is significant to the descendants of Native American tribes, which would likely have otherwise been lost forever.

“Edward Curtis’s work is not embraced by 100% of people, or all Indian tribes, as well. And they wanted to know if I thought it would be a good idea or not,” said Romanelli in an interview with Hyperallergic. “I’ve been interested in his work for years, and I believe the good absolutely outweighs the negative part. I don’t believe that he ever did anything to intentionally hurt Native Americans. I think he was trying to help Native Americans, and that makes a big difference to me.”

Plate from Edward Curtis’s The North American Indian (detail view)

Romanelli also highlighted a strong sense of connection to the subjects of Curtis’s photographs. “The world would not have known those people [without Curtis’s work], and I believe, in one sense, I can see the souls of my ancestors. I would not have known what they looked like, who they were. So I cherish those photos, from my perspective.”

Perhaps it is powerful enough, all on its own, to enter a conventional museum space and find it entirely dedicated to images of people of color. Western art institutions continue to be overwhelmingly dominated by Eurocentric imagery and artists, and perhaps, by putting these photos on display, they help contribute to a collective understanding of racial injustice.

Plate from Edward Curtis’s The North American Indian

“The time we live in today, where we have the rise of white supremacy, compared with just one year ago — I think pushing forward a takeaway that the majority, dominant, white male culture in America still has a lot to learn from cultures that are not themselves is entirely appropriate,” said Mitchell, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “Some of us may feel that we have already had that takeaway, because of our background and our experience — but remember that in almost any community, the art museum, the anthropology museum will receive far more visitors with very little background in art and anthropology. Our job is to teach.”

Perhaps this is so, and all my personal frustration at the retrograde mentalities that make such remedial learning a necessity does not, at the end of the day, mean they do not exist or need to be addressed. But I have to wonder, if we are dealing with a population whose baseline takeaway from The North American Indian is that “Indians are people, too,” is putting 723 images on display enough to truly move the needle? After all, the United States is still breaking treaties. One cannot doubt Mitchell’s sincere engagement with Curtis’s work, nor the museum’s good faith efforts to present it in an inclusive way — nor even, in following Curtis’s 30-year journey of engagement with tribespeople, can one doubt that the experience profoundly affected his understanding of Native American cultures and humanity. But if presenting such imagery were enough to trigger revelation, could we not put 723 images of Syrian refugees on display somewhere, and watch the understanding come rolling in?

Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian, installation view at the Muskegon Museum of Art

A more effective contemporary reading of Curtis’s work happens in what I consider to be the very best part of the exhibition: the room juxtaposing Curtis’s images with the work of contemporary Native American artists who’ve reflected upon his impact on their cultural identity. Some, like two paintings by Ojibwe painter Jim Denomie, characterize Curtis as a kind of voyeur or paparazzi figure. Others directly reference his photography in their personal, interpretive works. Inarguably, Curtis’s long relationship with the tribespeople of North America had a significant impact on their communities.

Some of the contemporary works, hung adjacent to Edward Curtis’s photographs which served as source material

According to the narrative presented by the museum, by the end of The North American Indian, Curtis was basically penniless and died in obscurity, as popular interest in his project waned while his own obsession mounted. In his later years, as he became more aware of the struggles of the people he was photographing, his work might be seen as an early attempt at activist or social practice art, before there was any notion of such a thing. These works, also on display, showcase Native Americans living in a more Anglicized context, wearing Depression-era clothing rather than traditional garb, and reflect the ways in which there was, by then, little remaining of the “lifeways and mores” that Curtis found so initially fascinating. The fact that he continued to pursue Native Americans as subjects outside of the exoticized trappings of their traditional culture demonstrates a real transition in Curtis’s work.

Painting by Ojibwe artist Jim Denomie characterizes Edward Curtis as a paparazzi figure

Today, the preponderance of technology has made it possible for people to self-document, and there is less a need to rely on an external, paternalistic, or authoritative record. In this, at least, Curtis’s access to photography tools and training can justifiably be recognized as a product of his time. The question is, then, how can we take this work and do it better in our time — for example, centralizing the creative output and self-representation of Native American peoples, or at least giving it equal ground in the museum setting (rather than only putting it on display in museums dedicated to anthropology or Native American art).

“I’ve come away from this two years of work realizing that history is a very powerful force, because history, when you’re immersed in it, isn’t just looking at the past,” said Mitchell. “History constantly informs the present you’re living in — or it better, if we’re paying attention. But even more than that — and this touches upon why this exhibition is so poignantly timely for the time we live in — history also points us to our future that we’re going to share. We learn from the history how to live in our present, and how to plan to live in our future.”

Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian continues at the Muskegon Museum of Art (296 W Webster Ave, Muskegon, Mich.) through September 10.

comments (0)