Curtis and His Collaborators
Bill Anthes, Pitzer College
The iconic photographs Edward S. Curtis published in his massive twenty-volume series, The North American Indian between 1907 and 1927, are some of the most familiar and enduring images of Native Americans ever created. Curtis produced photographs of Native Americans in several genres, including figures in landscapes, ethnographic scenes, and staged tableaux. He also produced a feature-length silent film in 1914, In the Land of Head Hunters – a melodramatic romance featuring an all-native cast from a Kwakwaka’wakw village in British Columbia.1 However, he is best known for his iconic portraits, in which sitters are identified by tribe, and posed in traditional regalia.
Many viewers assume they are documentary images, although they are not. For his part, Curtis described his project as one of documenting “the old time Indian, his dress, his ceremonies, his life and manners.”2 But in his romantic pursuit of the “old time Indian,” Curtis worked carefully with his models to stage an image of a past that many believed was disappearing, and was at that moment being transformed by government policies and the increasing urbanization and industrialization of Indian country. We know that Curtis traveled with an extensive collection of costumes and props and we see these recycled from time to time in multiple images. Moreover, Curtis was careful to remove from the frame any item that might reveal his subjects’ modernity. If, say, a stray alarm clock escaped his notice, he eliminated it by retouching the final print. Indeed, Curtis was very much a man of his time. His obsessive project of saving Native American cultures was part and parcel of what anthropologist Renato Rosaldo has termed “imperialist nostalgia” – a distinctly modern state of mind wherein the passing of a form of life – or particular idea of nature or purity – is mourned by those who have benefited from its passing. As Rosaldo writes:
Imperialist nostalgia revolves around a paradox: A person kills somebody, and then mourns the victim. In more attenuated form, somebody deliberately alters a form of life, and then regrets that things have not remained as they were prior to the intervention. At more remove, people destroy the environment, and then worship nature. In any of its versions, imperialist nostalgia uses a pose of “innocent yearning” both to capture people’s imaginations and to conceal its complicity with often brutal domination.3
Scholars have debated the point, but it is entirely possible that Curtis felt a deep kinship with his Native American subjects, even as he was an agent of the society that doomed them to oblivion. He encouraged his models to pose and perform as Indians at a time when mainstream America was intent on the destruction of indigenous cultures and the assimilation of native peoples. In his film, In Land of the Head Hunters, he encouraged his actors to appear with family heirlooms that had not been seen in a generation or more. At the time, native ceremony and dance were still actively repressed by the government. His portraits document a moment of encounter with a proud individual, although individuals are rarely named – they appears as representative types. Nonetheless, the subject has agreed or chosen to be photographed as a traditional person, rather than as the civilized or assimilated “savage” familiar from the “before and after” photographs produced by missionaries and government-run boarding schools bent on remaking Indian students as proper Americans.4
In a way, then, Curtis’s portraits, taken in the early years of the twentieth century, testify to the tenacity and historical staying power of indigenous cultures. As photography historian Martha Sandweiss writes in Print the Legend: Photography and the American West, the sheer number of images of Native Americans made by Curtis and by other amateur and professional photographers suggest that for many native people, agreeing to be photographed or collaborating with a Euro-American studio photographer or government agent was seen as having some benefit. The resulting images – often depicting individuals surrounded by signifiers of status and leadership – were widely reproduced and circulated as evidence of their subjects’ leadership and political status as brokers and emissaries.5 While it is perhaps a stretch to imagine these images as co-authored by the native sitter and the photographer – between the artist and his subjects as collaborators, or as equals – it does make us wonder about the interactions between Curtis and the people he no doubt came to know as he pursued his life’s work.