I was mulling some more about our friend Edward Curtis (born in Wisconsin, by the way) and his epic project, and a thought occurred to me. This might be a trivial observation (trivial, maybe, but still not superficial) to people whose business or expertise is art history, but it fascinates me that artists are often perceived very differently by their contemporaries, in their own era, and, say, a century later. Certain artists conform much better to the values and tastes of their own times, others conform to the values and tastes of later times.
(I even think that tastes in historical artists express certain times—I wrote a school essay once reflecting on the fact that Rembrandt was considered the primus inter pares among painters in the 1950s in the U.S.A., according to polls of the public, the very greatest of all, and Beethoven the greatest composer, whereas thirty or so years later it was Picasso and Mozart who had segued into the top spots in the conventional wisdom. I read all kinds of things into that, some of which might even have been true.)
In some ways this is accidental, one might even say—who knows, at any given time, what the unknowable future will value?
Seems to me that Edward S. Curtis, as a photographer, was in some ways the victim of this. He didn't know exactly what future years would expect or value most highly, and one could argue that he guessed wrong; his pictures are formally staid, romantically inclined, and crafted more or less in line with the techniques of the pictorialists, who were advanced artistic practitioners at the time Curtis began his great project in 1895. How was he to know that the modern era would value loose, free composition, irony, detached ambiguousness, scientific documentary exactitude, and transparency to the materials? Atget, who was photographing at the same time as Curtis, but in complete obscurity and relative poverty, is considered the superior—certainly the more photographic—photographer now. Curiously, both were motivated by the same thing—an attempt to capture worlds they thought were vanishing before they disappeared.
I sometimes try to imagine what a future century will think of various contemporary photographers. I have no idea, of course—this kind of cultural blindness is insuperable—but I'll bet Henry Wessel will be valued a lot more a century from now than he is by his contemporaries. And that people then will wonder what we saw in some of our own historical moment's most exalted art stars.
P.S. As an aside—this seems to keep coming up the past few days—Curtis "won" a very early version of a "genius grant"—financier J.P.Morgan (himself the subject of one of the most famous photographic portraits) gave Curtis $75,000—in installments, of $15,000 a year for five years—in 1906, to help him with his project. That's more than Uta Barth got from the MacArthur Foundation...it would be the equivalent of about $1.8 million in today's money. And despite that, Curtis impoverished himself publishing his magnum opus, and struggled with money through his later years.
UPDATE: NPR has just posted—today—an interview with Timothy Egan about his brand new biography of Curtis, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher. I've added a link to the book below. Thanks to Chad Thompson for this.
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A book of interest today:
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