Appreciating the photography of Edward S. Curtis

This week, the website of the Atlantic published 34 photos by Edward S. Curtis, the tireless documenter of American Indians who did the bulk of his most famous work at the beginning of the 20th century. Whatever else these images may be, they are stunning. Have a look.

The gallery got me thinking. In anthropology — the discipline in which I majored and which I took quite seriously in my undergraduate studies — Curtis is, like many of the first Americans who tried to document rather than annihilate Native culture, a contentious figure. You can get a sense of the controversy on Wikipedia, but the gist of it is this:  Curtis’s stage-managed, idealized photos disguised the abysmal material conditions of many Indians at the time, and did damage to the spirit as well, promoting the suffocating, one-dimensional trope of the Noble Savage.

There really is no legitimate  refutation of these criticisms. They are accurate. They also probably describe how the photographs were consumed at the time they were published. One imagines a Euroamerican in an Edwardian parlor thumbing through the glossy prints from The North American Indian with a kind of false respect, looking out a window where children play Savages beneath a tree, and where acres of rich, verdant, utterly stolen land stretch in every direction. Such a dishonest empathy for vanquished peoples on the part of their tormenters can seem almost like the final insult after centuries of holocaust. Now that we have done the dirty deed of your subjugation, we will soothe our own souls with a distant and abstract appreciation for the idea of your existence — on our terms, and twisted to our satisfaction.

And yet, I find the photos not only beautiful, but also precious. The faces in them do not lie, and with the proper eye we can read lives in their lines and creases. Not just tears as non-Indian audiences usually presume Indians of this and most eras were shedding, but also love, laughter, wisdom, anger, and all the normal experiences and emotions of humanness that owe nothing to race, state, tribe, tradition, fixed culture, or any of the other deceitful notions cooked up by expanding empires in the modern era.

Take, for instance, this image of Sitting Owl.

In this man’s eyes I see a sense of humor, and also a gaze that is considering the photographer — and somehow, even the viewer deep in the future — with all the scrutiny and interest the camera is directing at him. I also see someone who knows how to play his cards close to his chest, and who can be hard when necessary. When we are reminded that the costume is likely at least partly contrived for the photo, that Curtis probably asked for a particular expression, and that a small pox epidemic reduced the Hidatsa people to just 500 individuals two generations before this image was made, then we begin to imagine the life of Sitting Owl in great detail, and we begin to see this face as being composed of stories, personality, creativity, and the brilliant vitality of a kindred human mind.

It’s in viewing these images with a sense of context that I think they have value. It makes me thankful that Curtis took them, and even more so that their subjects agreed to avail themselves. It also makes me sad to think of the deeply corrupt social circumstances in which the pictures were taken.

If I could design an exhibit for these images, they would not just be accompanied by a short caption, or a placard with a bit of information on when and where they were taken, or even a pamphlet with a few essays. They would be mounted on big walls with text surrounding them, spiraling out from the edges and filling the gallery. Biographies, memories, screaming criticisms, quiet poetry — it would all need to be there.

Then, maybe we could say that enough time has passed that we can appreciate this photography, as we try to understand the often hideous history that surrounds it.

Dangriga, Belize: Photos from before the digital age

Before I published my last post, about Aurelio Martinez’s “new” album, I wrote my Belizean-American-San Franciscan (last modifier should really come first) friend, director Ezra J. Stanley, to see if he had some good pics from the Garifuna community where he has family roots.

Well, I didn’t get a response before my post went up, but boy was it worth the wait. It is with humility that I share Ezra’s beautiful photos of children in Dangriga, Belize: Ezra, I’m not worthy! These are some real gems from a visit he paid in 1999 — which, I remind you, was long before the vintage look became so annoyingly popular in photography. Copyright Ezra J. Stanley, all rights reserved. Enjoy.

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The importance of logging off

Just me and the mountains (no cell signal).

I was delighted to see the front page New York Times article today. Not only did it describe one of my favorite stretches of the San Juan River west of Mexican Hat, Utah — a river that gave me one of my first tastes of the wilderness as an eight year-old — but it also made a splashy introduction of some points that I think everyone will take more and more seriously in the next decade or so. Namely, that being constantly online shapes the way we think and process information, and that sometimes, we have to get offline.
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Sonora Spring

Last week, I had the privilege to spend a couple of days in Tucson, Arizona, on family business. It made me realize how much I miss the West and the great outdoors. It also gave me an excuse to use WordPress.com’s new (and a little late in the game, to be honest) slide show feature. Following are some hiking pictures from a “desert” that is in bloom after getting big winter rains. First time I ever saw miners’ lettuce outside of Northern California. I hiked to raging waterfalls, saw poppies blooming under cacti, and went from 85 degree sunshine to snow in a 25 minute drive up a sky island. And, I also spotted a troop of snookum bears!

Is that it? No rants about the politics of urban development in Southern Arizona? Or a discussion of the way that Mamdani’s theories about how colonizers turned ethnicities into hardened political entities — by designating them tribes — might be relevant to the Hopi-Navajo land dispute?

Not right now. This post is a little off-topic for the LGD. But life is life, and we all do as we can.* Enjoy the slide show.

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*I realize this is a largely meaningless sentence. Sorry. 🙂

Long-gone quote from Blue Highways

I liked this little quote from the first page of William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, which I stumbled on today. It describes the night he decided he was going to go on a ridiculous road trip across the back roads of America. It was February, and a friend had just told him that if the cold stuck any more that winter, the trees were going to explode. For that and other reasons, he decided to get gone — and write a best-selling book about it that defined his career. Which is pretty cool. (Haven’t read the whole book yet, so I’ll spare you my opinion on all but the following.)

“That night, as I lay wondering whether I would get sleep or explosion, I got the idea instead. A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go. He could quit trying to get out of the way of life. Chuck routine. Live the real jeopardy of circumstance. It was a question of dignity.”

Frisco photos

I was looking through pictures trying to find examples of what “Frisco” means to me, a question I pondered near the end of my last post. This is what I came up with. (Apparently I take a disproportionate number of pictures of graffiti murals when I go home. I’ll be sure to get more of people next time. These are just scenes that caught my eye, before I knew I was making an album.)

Is it clear what I mean when I say Frisco is beautiful, but scratchy?

Frisco

Leave her, Johnny, leave her: Top 10 things I’ll miss about Kenya & Tanzania

"Oh I thought I heard the old man say, leave her, Johnny, leave her..."

It’s time to sing sea shanties and lift the parting glass: I’m leaving East Africa. For now, at least.

I head to New York City this evening. I have plenty of thoughts about freelancing, opportunities and career decisions, but I’m going to save those for another post. I also have a bunch of undigested material from East Africa, so readers of this blog may feel like I am still here for a few weeks (I haven’t even put up the Uganda and Kenya sections to my Ridiculous Roadtrip (TM) account. I’ve actually been without consistent Internet for about the last 10 days, which has kept me from writing and engaging more.)

But now, here’s something in the way of goodbye to this beautiful region, which now firmly occupies a large place in my heart. (When you’re about to leave a place, you somehow begin to remember only the good things about it; and those things loom larger and larger as the hour of departure draws near.)

In a nod to the conventions of blogging, here are the top 10 things I’m going to miss, each, about Tanzania and Kenya, the countries where I spent the most time during the last six months. (This reflects my personal experience, so if you think something’s missing – make your own list!) Continue reading

Is it too late to wish my loyal readers Happy New Year?

Ten days isn’t too late, right folks? I’m still basking in a new year glow, and just want to give everyone my sincere thanks for following me through 2009. I transformed into a functional digital addict this year, and through your comments, tweets and feedback, you helped me do it.

Here’s an image that belongs on the LGD: I like to think this is what this blog is all about. This photo is on the trail below Banner Peak, California in June, 2009 (count yourself lucky, I don’t always identify the location of my Sierran pics). That mountain looks imposing, but then look at the view from near the top — all the topography of the land traversed is clear. Kinda like starting and finishing up the year.

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Ridiculous road trip pt. 1: Burundi

Between November 10 and December 5, I went on a road trip that took me from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Bujumbura, Burundi – via Nairobi, Kisumu, Kampala and Kigali. Hitting all five countries in the East African Community (EAC) in four weeks via bus is an endeavor I can only describe as ridiculous. I estimate that I logged more than 75 hours in buses; if someone could calculate the mileage for me, that would be awesome. (This is not counting at least 45 hours of trains and automobiles I undertook at the end of October, going from Dar es Salaam to Tanga to Mombasa, and then from Mombasa to Nairobi, and then back to Dar – see previous posts.)

For some reason, I’m going to start with Burundi, a country where I only spent three nights and didn’t do any real reporting. Burundi was basically my journey’s terminus, and maybe for that reason I can get a little sentimental about it. But for whatever reason, this beautiful, war-torn little country looms large in my mind. Continue reading