Performing Archive: Curtis + “the vanishing race”

Vanishing Race and Cañon de Chelly

Ken Gonzales-Day, Scripps College

In 1904, Curtis (or rather his wife Clara) submits and wins a Ladies’ Home Journal photography contest for “the prettiest children in America” and it turns into a break for his new project. He is invited by President Theodore Roosevelt to photograph his children. Curtis had yet to secure funding for what he had already begun to envision as a series of photographic books on Native Americans and had pitched the idea to the Smithsonian Institution and a number of other publishers without success. Some questioned his qualifications; others questioned the feasibility of the project. His friendship with President Roosevelt would greatly boost his professional standing and further contributed to his visibility from Seattle to the national stage.

Two early and rather significant images from his growing series of photographs of Native Americans are “The Vanishing Race – Navaho” and “Cañon De Chelly – Navaho”;both taken in 1904. Gerald Vizenor, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, characterizes Curtis’ photograph, “The Vanishing Race” as “…a column of natives lost in the shadows, a sentimental evanescence.” These photographs were printed in unnumbered editions, as Orotones or “Curt-tones” as his studio called them, and were sold as fine art prints even before they were included in the first volume of The North American Indian, which, when it was finally published in 1907, included a forward by none other than President Roosevelt. Curtis would continue to sell individual prints throughout the many years he worked on The North American Indian.

In “The Vanishing Race” Curtis captures a single column of Navaho riders, literally riding off into a dark and rather uncertain landscape, while the “Cañon De Chelly” image is almost cinematic in its scale: a row of small figures on horseback riding beneath majestic stone cliffs. In fact, the image was so cinematic that it would influence early western films, and it was more than a little ironic that nearly three decades later Curtis would be hired by the famous director, Cecil B. DeMille (1881- 1959) to scout locations and shoot still images for his 1936 western fantasy movie, The Plainsman.

Curtis carefully emulated earlier genre paintings in “Cañon de Chelly.” Many of these earlier genre paintings embraced the notion of the “Noble Savage” and often depicted a well-meaning or helpful Indian, who offers aid to the white man, and then quietly vanishes leaving land and food enough for all. As a subject, it can be found in many western themed works by artists like Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), whose own “Indians Travelling Near Fort Laramie,” 1861, also depicted a small band of Indians on horseback, and is even complete with a somewhat fantastical (or should one say phallic) rocky outcropping in the distance. In the Curtis image, one sees Native American riders in near silhouette, set again the massive rock formations of the canyon in an image that depicted the Navaho’s “primitive” connection with nature, in a setting that would certainly have still been seen as exotic in 1904. Both images sought to give visual form to the popular image of the Native American as a “vanishing race,” and both images are still highly sought after by photography collectors interested in the American West.

The belief in the “vanishing race” was obviously not unique to Curtis, but was a widespread idea that was grounded in two scholarly theories, which David R. M. Beck has eloquently summarized in his essay “The Myth of the Vanishing Race.” He writes:

[T]he view that America's continental "Manifest Destiny" was successfully completed in geographic terms, that the "frontier" had been closed by Euro-American expansion into every part of this nation; and 2) Social Darwinism, which posited that cultures battled with each other in an evolutionary contest in which one was destined to triumph and the other to fade into extinction. This theory dovetailed both with demographic evidence, embodied in a precipitous drop in Native populations, and with the federal policy of forced assimilation, which even most supporters of Indian people believed to be the only hope for Indian survival in the new century. In popular terms, these views were reinforced in wild west shows, world fairs, art, literature and a variety of other venues, all of which helped lay the foundations for the American public's long-standing misinterpretation of American Indians.

Many of the subjects and Native American peoples selected to be included in the twenty volumes of The North American Indian were located, or had been relocated, to areas west of the Mississippi river. Many of the traditions, spiritual practices, and modes of dress that Curtis photographed, were already a thing of the past, prohibited by the U.S. government, or had already been transformed by the communities themselves. For example, the Sun Dance was outlawed by the federal government just a few years after Curtis had witnessed the ceremony with Grinnell in Montana.

In many cases Curtis encouraged his models to stage, restage, or perform dances or ceremonies out of season and out of context, but Curtis believed that performing for the camera could serve as a way of preserving cultural traditions while there was still a living memory of them. In his own caption to “The Vanishing Race,” Curtis wrote:
“The thought which this picture is meant to convey is that the Indians as a race, already shorn in their tribal strength and stripped of their primitive dress, are passing into the darkness of an unknown future. Feeling that the picture expresses so much of the thought that inspired the entire work, the author has chosen it as the first of the series.”

As David R. M. Beck reminds us in “The Myth of the Vanishing Race,” that Native American populations continued to decline throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He writes, “violence and disease caused some tribal communities to lose as much as ninety percent of their member populations.” Begun at first contact, compounded by the repeated use of disease filled blankets as gifts, and other methods of transmission, eastern tribes were slowly forced to move or relocate to areas west of the Mississippi. Beck concludes that as “wave after wave of disease hit ... All in all, a land that may well have held seven to ten million American Indians at the time of Columbus's arrival contained approximately a quarter of a million by 1900.”

In addition to the images, with their highly suggestive titles, Curtis’ promoted the popular conception of the “vanishing race” on a more nuanced level as well. Curtis consciously chose to print all of the photographic images in The North American Indian as photogravures instead of halftone printing, which was already widely available in commercial printing by the beginning of the twentieth century. For those not familiar with the process of halftone printing, it simply required adding a screen over a continuous tone image, like a photograph, and by blocking some of the light, the screen would reduce what had been an infinite number of grey tones down to a series of solid dots of different sizes, and was the same method once used in newspapers and comic books. By the time it is completed, The North American Indian will include over 2228 individually printed photogravure illustrations, and it is Curtis’ insistence on such a labor intensive process that will dramatically increase the time and cost of printing each volume. It is the one decision that will ultimately be both the projects greatest strength for the unique record he creates and its greatest weakness, causing financial hardships for himself, his family, and the many assistants, editors, and workers who often went long stretches without being paid.

In 1905, The New York Tribune Illustrated Supplement ran a short article on Curtis stating that he “…has many rare pictures of striking features of some of the most secret and sacred Indian ceremonies. In obtaining these pictures Mr. Curtis has oftentimes risked life and limb…” 

In a way the passage reveals a tension that will run throughout The Native American Indian; the tension between, his sincere interest in photographing and recording aspects of Native Americans culture, beliefs, and people, and his more pressing desire to capitalize on a subject that he hoped would have lasting commercial and popular appeal. The photogravure process clearly created a visual metaphor for the “vanishing race”, but it also undermined the financial feasibility of the project.

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  1. Vanishing race - Navaho
  2. The Vanishing Race
  3. Canon de Chelly - Navaho