Edward Curtis was an accomplished portrait photographer who aspired to be much more. He resolved, in the early years of the twentieth century, to travel Indian country throughout the American West in search what he called the “vanishing native.” He made sound recordings, motion pictures, and field notes, and most of all, he took photographs.
These photographs were sublime in subject, artful in composition, and lustrous in production. They were compiled into a twenty-volume work called The North American Indian, publication during the years 1917-1930 funded by J. P. Morgan, the banker. You have seen and been influenced by these photographs—such as his tragic portrait of Chief Joseph—even if you don’t recognize the name of Edward Curtis. They have imprinted the American popular image of the people we call Indian.
Curtis began this grand enterprise with energy and élan. He traveled with an entourage, was a personal friend of President Roosevelt, and sported a lovely Van Dyke beard. He ended up impoverished, alone, and for a long time, forgotten.
Late in the twentieth century Curtis’s work enjoyed a revival, and now we have a competent biography of the man by the well-known popular historian, Timothy Egan. I’m not sure what Egan wants us to think about Curtis. The biography is sympathetic, and it recognizes the profound importance of the compilation Curtis made. On the other hand, there are disturbing things about both the biography and its subject.
Egan, the biographer, is too tightly focused. He follows Curtis around, and never considers the situations and motives of the Indians he is photographing. Why did they assent to the photographs? What did they think of all this?
The exception, a native who is given voice, is Alexander Upshaw, a Crow Indian, graduate of the Carlisle academy, who assisted Curtis in his work on the northern plains. This included gaining access to certain sacred objects of the Mandan, a truly unscrupulous episode for both him and Curtis. Upshaw died under suspicious circumstances in a Billings jail cell.
Curtis went to native communities, hung around, determined vulnerable points, and then offered money to individuals to get access to things and permission to take photographs. These were not authorized representatives, but individuals he paid off. In addition, he had what sure seems to have been a prurient interest in photographing Indian maidens with very little clothing. All this adds up to a certain creepiness for which, mostly, Egan gives Curtis a pass.
Then there is the larger issue of the image of American Indians Curtis’s monumental work leaves us with—that of the vanishing native. He argued he was saving Indian culture by making a record of it. He was so disappointed in the 1920s when he did his work in Oklahoma, because he thought the Indians among whom he moved, particularly the once-mighty Comanche, were not Indian enough. “The old wrinkled men sit about and tell of the days of their ancestors when life was real and full of action,” Curtis wrote with disdain. So his volume on the Oklahoma Indians is half-hearted and lame.
The publishers of the biography, unfortunately, have been captured by Curtis’s self-promotion. “In the end he fulfilled his promise,” the dust jacket intones. “He made the Indians live forever.”
No. He took their pictures. They lived, and live, because of their own will and resilience.