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Thursday, 04 October 2012


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For those who did not have 1.44 million dollars to bid with, it is worth noting that the USA Library of Congress has digitized many Curtis photographs and made moderate quality TIFF files available free of charge online. Like Mike did with "Migrant Mother" some time ago, I have made my own interpretations of some Curtis originals. I collated my twenty best efforts and had a very limited edition (one copy) custom photobook printed.

Hmmm, if that had been available on one of your Amazon links . . . all of us added together couldn't have afforded it!

It works! It works!

I clicked on the thumbnail, was whisked to Amazon and bought a used copy of Native Nations. In the past, I used your portal about 15% of the time simply because I didn't remember to use it.

Please don't tell my wife.

Bit of a controversial photographer from what I've read, known for bringing plenty of "Indian" props with him in case his subjects appeared too modern, and modifying his photos if needed to remove modern elements. I suppose he's like a lot of landscape photographers these days, taking care to only show what one wants, except he was photographing humans, not land.

It's a complex situation from an ethnological and political standpoint. Artistically it's much more acceptable. He came by fairly late in the game, realized that things were in a state of swift transition, and was doing his best to record the way things were rather than what they were becoming. So for instance some of the people he made portraits of sometimes wore traditional clothing and sometimes wore white man's clothing; he wanted to photograph them dressed in the traditional way. I think it's obvious by now that he was photographing a quickly vanishing world, and if he didn't adhere to the strictest modern documentary standards, we can generally make allowances for that and still get a lot out of the work. There were a lot of influences at work on him, from late 18th century romanticism to the beginning glimmers of the "Indian as mascot" syndrome of more recent years.

There's a whole lot in the literature about the subtleties of the various arguments if you feel like delving into it further. But generally I think dismissing Curtis is as wrongheaded as accepting his pictures as literal.


Mike said,

"It's a complex situation..."

Sort of like Avedon in the American West. It's all true, but not exactly what you see when you get out of the car.

Mike, not dismissing him. Looks like beautiful work. I'm just very aware of the politics of it all, which I think we should acknowledge. From my understanding Native Americans were uniquely romanticized photographically in a way that whites wanted to remember them, partly based on paintings and novels from an earlier time. Photographers where I live (Southeast Alaska) did the same thing around the same period, folks like Winters and Pond. Their work is not always accurate for the time, but still historically valuable. They had some "tourist stock" they keep for sale, but also did document regular life... Here's a link to an image of a shaman from 1900. Hard to say if he's a real shaman since they had mostly been run underground by whites, but maybe...

I seen some of Edward S. Curtis platinum prints at an exhibit in Sao Paulo a few years ago, they were amazing.

From my own readngs, Curtis was trying to capture the native Americans in their original culural look before the arrival of the Europeans. When he started the project it was still possible. Due to the length of the time period it took to create the images and books, he never took any photos after its completion in the early 30's. I guess it to be photography burnout. Of Curtis's prints, it is the Orotones that are the most interesting to me.

There is still some "Curtis type" shooting possible. If you visit some tribal lands at the right time, and have good tribal friends, you MAY be permitted to photograph some traditional ceremonies which include traditional activities and dress. However, that's usually the exception, as some tribes do not allow non-believers to attend or photograph their religious ceremonies.

I have always enjoyed Edward S. Curtis's work, he made some beautiful images, it would be very difficult to make those kind of images today.

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