Edward Curtis: Simplifying the Relevance

Edward CurtisSince the 1970’s Edward Curtis’ iconic images have surfaced from a whole variety of places:  libraries, family heirlooms, undocumented museum collections, pawn shops, discovered in the basements of old houses, etc.  And, since the 70’s, the artist’s work has consistently gone up in value to collectors.

But why is Curtis so relevant?  What really makes this body of work so special?  Couldn’t anyone make these pictures?

Um, no.  As it turns out Edward Curtis was, regardless of subject matter, an extraordinary photographer in his own right.  In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s no one had seen photographic images of such extraordinary detail, nuance, density and light.  In the scheme of things, the medium was still fairly young at the time.  Curtis’ negatives and prints were sublime – even before Ansel Adams and Fred Archer collaborated to create the Zone System in 1939.  Technically, Curtis was virtuosic and his extant body of work is a testament to not only himself, as an artist, but to the development of photography as a viable medium in the bourgeoning art world.  Easily one might argue that at least part of the relevance of Curtis’ work rests in the merit of the photography itself.  As well, photogravure – the process Edward Curtis used to reproduce images for The North American Indian is also historically significant.  The three handmade paper types, Dutch Van Gelder, Japon Vellum & Deluxe Japanese Tissue onto which Curtis’ images were printed as photogravures for publication won’t ever be produced again.  Collectors revere these images for their unique qualities and thus, we have another reason to call the work “relevant.”

What’s truly extraordinary, however, about Edward Curtis’ work is the content itself.  Curtis’ ambition to create a visual record of Native American life and culture is remarkable.  At the onset of the artist’s work with Native Americans he probably seemed altogether crazy.  The Civil War was over and the collective American Consciousness was primarily geared towards continued financial and industrial development – and of course, territorial expansion.  The US Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act in 1851, authorizing the creation of Indian Reservations.  By the time Curtis came onto the scene in the late 1800’s, “Indians” had already been sequestered on reservations for years.

Most of America at the time was prepared to turn a blind eye and Edward Curtis was one of the very few; artists, politicians, or otherwise who sought to give a voice to the indigenous peoples of North America.

What’s significant, relevant, and undeniable is that the work of Edward Curtis is the largest ethnographic study of Native American life and culture in existence.  The arguments and faux controversies over whether or not Curtis “staged” any of his images are completely erroneous.  The simple fact is that had Curtis not made these images, we wouldn’t have an accurate visual record of Native American life and culture from the late 1800’s and 1900’s at all!  Indeed, there were a number of painters who turned their canvases into depictions of Native American scenes – but these are mostly stylized embellishments.  Curtis’ photographs, on the other hand, act as a living document.  They are as honest and complete a record as possible and to Curtis, we are grateful for taking the time and care.  The Plains Indian photographs of Edward Curtis are an indelible part of the American experience – the good, the bad, and the ugly.