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.