Performing Archive

Chief Josef –Nez Perce

Ken Gonzales-Day, Scripps College

In 1897, Curtis took full control of the photographic studio and renamed it “Edward S. Curtis, Photographer and Photoengraver.” It was during this period that his brother went, or was sent to, photograph the new Gold Rush in the Yukon. He sent many glass plate negatives back to Edward who used a number of the images to illustrate an article he was writing. Upon returning, Asahel was not pleased to discover that he was not given any credit for the images, which resulted in a huge disagreement over who owned what; Curtis asserted that all the materials and images were the property of Curtis Inc. Asahel apparently didn’t agree, and left the studio, the house, and the two brothers remained estranged for the rest of their lives. 

In 1898, while climbing on Mount Rainer, Curtis met, or “rescued,” a group of climbers that included George Bird Grinnell and C. Hart Merriam. Grinnell was the editor of Forest and Stream, founder of the Audubon Society and an expert on Plains Indians. Merriam was the head of the U.S. Biological Survey and a founder of the National Geographic Society. These new friendships would, in 1899, aid Curtis in being appointed as the official photographer for the Harriman Alaska Expedition. Then in 1900, Grinnell invited Curtis to join him on an expedition to northwest Montana where Grinnell would study and record details surrounding the controversial Sun Dance. It was during this period that Curtis began to imagine his own project; A photographic record of Native American people, their traditional dress, cultural practices, which like the Sun Dance, were quickly disappearing or being banned.

Curtis photographed Chief Josef (1830-1904) or Hinmatóowyalahtq’it, in his Native language, a year before his death, when he came to Seattle. In volume eight Curtis would write, "To him popular opinion has given the credit of conducting a remarkable strategic movement from Idaho to northern Montana in the flight of the Nez Perce in 1877. The unfortunate effort to retain what was rightly their own makes an unparalleled story in the annals of the Indians' resistance to the greed of the whites."

The Nez Perce War began when U. S. troops pursued over eight hundred Nez Perce Indians as they fled from General Howard, ultimately trying to reach asylum with Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and his people, who escaped to Canada the previous year. The war ended after a series of armed conflicts that took place near the end of the nearly 1, 200-mile chase. The weather was reported to have been extremely cold and they were without food or blankets. Women and children were suffering and his people had begun to flee. The war leaders were dead. Josef had no choice but to surrender. He was less than 40 miles from the Canadian boarder. Known as the “Red Napoleon” in the popular press of his day, his fame would not help him reunite with his people for many years and despite years of trying, he would never be allowed to return to his ancestral home in the Wallowa valley.

A second Curtis portrait of Joseph appears in the text volume. In this image Chief Joseph is wearing a war bonnet – with feathers and fine beadwork, and appears rather sullen in his expression. Curtis used a conventional studio backdrop, as he would for a majority of the early portraits included in The North American Indian. The backdrop is a standard convention in portraiture because it literally and metaphorically isolates the figures from their surroundings, their culture, their families, and reconfigures them as passive objects for our gaze. The impact of the backdrop as a visual strategy has been written on in Curtis’ work, and well as in the work of later portrait photographers ranging from Irvine Penn's (1917-2009) “Small Trades” to Richard Avedon’s (1923-2004) “In the American West.”

In addition to his formal framing of the images, the Curtis images are particularly memorable because of their heightened detail; detail made possible because of the large format of the camera he was using. The large format camera has long been a favorite of the portrait photographer, but it should be remembered that all of Curtis’ images were taken in a period when easier, smaller, cameras were becoming widely available thanks to the Eastman Kodak Co. Kodak had begun to market the “Brownie” camera with the film already in it three year before he photographed Chief Joseph. With the Brownie, one simply sent back the camera after shooting, and Kodak would return the pictures fully developed and printed on black and white paper. Curtis’ insistence on a large-format camera throughout The North American Indian sets his images apart from many ethnographic projects, and is one of the qualities that make the work so compelling.

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