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Considering the Curtis Portraits
Heather Blackmore, USC
Focus on the PortraitWhat do we find when we look at a portrait? What is the difference between leafing through portraits in a book, hanging one on a wall, seeing one in a gallery or clicking through an online archive? What do we find when we spend time with an image? In the hyper-saturated media environment in which we live, thousands of images enter and exit our fields of view each week. Even the images we consider important and the ones we study—including most of the more than three thousand images in this book—will receive only a few fractions of a second of your time and attention. This has become the standard mode of experiencing most visual information, as each image we encounter accumulates within our understanding as part of a general category—advertising-images, postcard-images, dense-charts, important-paintings-with-names-I-should-remember, sexual-images, historical-images, cute-baby-animal-images. Each category in our mind-archive grows by the day and by the week as we encounter new entries, and each morphs into the other images with which it is associated, forming a kind of collective cultural afterimage. Often representative more of the consistencies across the collective body than of any one actual image existing in the real world, these collective afterimages become mental archetypes that can be easily drawn to mind. Consider the National Geographic tribal photo, the family reunion, the mourning of a public figure, or tabloid coverage of secret celebrity romances. Each of these categories immediately triggers a mental image constructed out of the many related images you have seen. These images are recognized both through their content as well as their formal conventions, and upon each element of the form are layered a variety of ideological meanings and assumptions. More specifically related to the topic of this book, consider the many categories of images of Native Americans. Categories like warriors, men with horses, ceremonies, medicine men, and women with children instantly register familiarity, and if you have a prior knowledge of the work of Edward S. Curtis or you have already spent some time with this book, these categories of images grow still more specific into dance photographs, ceremonial masks and costumes, women doing domestic work, great chiefs, and the many, many portraits. A very significant percentage of the body of Edward Curtis’s work was devoted to portraits. While rich in specific individual detail, as a form of photography the portrait is so pervasive that it is often overlooked. As part of a lineage from the beginnings of portraiture in painting when portraits most frequently featured well-known important people painted by important artists, the photographic portraits to which we tend to pay the greatest attention today, are those of public figures, be they celebrities, politicians, athletes, or famous criminals. The primary exceptions are portraits made of one’s own family. This is also consistent with the traditional roots of portraiture in painting that precede photography, as portraits that were painted of individuals who could afford to commission them were frequently passed down within families as simultaneous testaments to the wealth and prestige of the household and to the physical power or beauty of the subject, the ancestor. What then might we find if we consider Curtis’s portraits more closely? Some of Curtis’s portraits do feature very famous, influential and historically significant individuals. Part of the fame and mythology of Curtis himself issues from the fact that he existed at the right place and time to photograph a significant number of extraordinary individuals before they “vanished,” due both to old age and to the “civilizing” forces of the U.S. Government which forcefully put an end to the violent rebellions against its own agents as well as inter-tribal warfare. Figures like Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Red Hawk, and Red Cloud are among the most famous of Curtis’s body of photographs, and the first portrait of a Native American Curtis ever made was that of Princess Angeline, daughter of the great Chief Seattle, for whom the city of Seattle is named. The similarities between Curtis’s Native American subjects and those of classical portraiture begin to unravel at this point however, as, despite the nobility and position evoked by her title, Princess Angeline was reportedly living in destitution on the outskirts of the city and instead of commissioning the portrait, Curtis paid her a modest sum to sit for him. Princess Angeline lacked any trappings of wealth or prestige with which to surround herself in her images, and in addition to her portrait, the two other photographs of her for which Curtis received a great deal of attention were those of her digging clams and mussels by the shore.What then is the meaning of this portrait of Princess Angeline? What are the meanings of the portraits of each of the great chiefs and warriors? Each was famous for his devotion to an enterprise that had largely failed or would fail, at least according to the conventional understanding of the almost universally white Western population who consumed Curtis’s photographs in their contemporary moment and for whom the progression and dominance of white civilization was largely an unquestioned certainty. In John Berger’s landmark text Ways of Seeing, he observes that “Images were first made to conjure up the appearances of something that was absent. Gradually it became evident that an image could outlast what it represented…”.1 Berger is speaking here of a history of images that long precedes Curtis’s camera, as many oil paintings in the tradition he identifies initially dealt with religious, mythological or otherwise symbolic themes, picturing events that had not literally taken place. Later it was recognized that a painted canvas would outlast the human body and thus could serve as a kind of testament to or document of the living. In certain ways, Curtis’s photographs, and particularly his portraits, take up a similar task, not only preserving but also conjuring. Certainly the later part of Berger’s observation, the ability of images to outlast and preserve the human body, was one of the primary drives of The North American Indian project, as Curtis set out to document Native American cultures before they had been entirely wiped out and decimated by violence or were voluntarily and/or forcibly assimilated with white culture—the processes of “vanishing.” Simultaneously, Curtis was in search of a truth or a history that was no longer present, and in some cases, never had been. Edward Curtis has been widely criticized for removing the trappings of modernization in order to make his subjects appear more removed from civilization. This same criticism has also been levied against Curtis’s contemporary anthropologists and media makers including Franz Boas and Robert Flaherty2 and was probably quite common in that day. More significantly however, Curtis’s project works to construct, or conjure, the history of Native American people that was needed at that moment in time by the dominant cultural forces who needed a means through which to mourn the loss of Native Americans while simultaneously facilitating it. This is certainly not to say that Curtis was not ethical according to the standards of his time and that the work is not highly valuable, both artistically and historically. It is to say however, that the twenty volumes of text and photographs are employed within a rhetoric of history and art and this is one history but not the only history. Once again, in Ways of Seeing, John Berger remarks on the ways that we come to works of art and their relationship to history:
… When an image is presented as a work of art, the way people look at it is affected by a whole series of learnt assumptions about art. Assumptions concerning:
Many of these assumptions no longer accord with the world as it is. … Out of true with the present, these assumptions obscure the past. They mystify rather than clarify. The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently fear of the present leads to mystification of the past.3As you look at the many Native American portraits Edward Curtis photographed and published as part of the North American Indian, I challenge you to consider the histories they tell. The people photographed as “The Oldest Man in Nootka” and “Wishham Female Type” fill a particular purpose in the narrative of the master history. They are archetypes signifying the important elements of the project—age, lineage, scientific classification, mortality—but portraits are about individuals, not archetypes. As you spend a few moments with these images in stillness and silence, consider the other quiet histories that begin to creep in and linger, like the afterimage.