The same impetus that sent his contemporaries Charles Wakefield Cadman and Arthur Farwell in search of American Indian melodies prompted Curtis (1868-1952) to begin a survey of Amerindian life in 1896. Curtis began his reportage with the Apaches, Jicarillas, and Navahos and ended thirty-four years later with the Eskimo tribes in Alaska (having received financial assistance from J. Pierpont Morgan from 1907 onward). During these decades, he witnessed even further inroads into the already tragically dwindling civilizations, and his camera captures this sad assimilation.
Curtis’s motives as an artist and ethnologist were not to stop what he viewed as inevitable progress and natural selection, but to record the beauties of what was disappearing. This essentially passive, observational approach has met with modern criticism from those who would have wished Curtis to protest the passing of the primeval landscape and its noble peoples, plants, and animals. Others–troubled by the prose narrative which accompanies Curtis’ photographs, in which he argues that tribal life is a regrettable but inevitable casualty of civilization–denounce the pictures as insensitive and distasteful exploitation. Nonetheless, if we remove Curtis’s art from the rhetoric (on both sides) and let the images speak for themselves, we find not only an invaluable, informative history, but also an empathetic, even elegiac record of a people whom Curtis believed possessed extraordinary soulfulness, natural morality, and underrated skills of artistry and peaceful governance.
Curtis’s lens pans the entire breadth of Amerindian experience: Native Americans farming, fishing, celebrating rituals, holding conferences, and creating art. In his portraits he often idealizes the sitter, endowing his subject with an inner as well as surface luminosity, and compelling dignity. In his still lifes of artifacts he stresses the sophistication of the objects. In his moody landscapes he celebrates the memory of a wilderness scarred by the plow, the white hunter, and the railroad. In that subtle interplay of objective and evocative, Curtis advances his tacit premise: that an Arcadian world is vanishing before our helpless eyes and that while Progress is a tyrant, Art is a redeemer able to salvage from the loss moral lessons to enrich the future.
–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing
Photo: “In the Badlands–Sioux” by Edward S. Curtis (1905), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID Digital ID: cph 3b37170