This was a long-overdue Netgalley read – thanks to them.
Once upon a time (in the late 1800’s), a young man discovered the emerging art form of photography. And he discovered that he was good at it. And he began to make a living at it – a very good living, until he was the premiere portrait photographer of the also-emerging city of Seattle. And then one day he met a princess on the beach, and he fell in love.
He didn’t fall in love with the princess, though.
The young man was (of course) Edward Curtis, who is a textbook example of American Dream/self-made man/rags to riches, the kind of success story that … I don’t know, can that kind of thing still happen? And the princess was Princess Angeline, aged daughter of Chief Seattle of the exiled or possibly extinct Duwamish, who lived in a shack and scavenged on the beach. Indians had been forbidden to live in Seattle, but she ignored the law, and the law ignored her, and on she lingered. And in the sight of her gathering mussels on the beach one day, Edward Curtis saw something remarkable, and photographed it. And then brought her to his studio and took her portrait. And upon this intersection with her life he began to realize that she was representative of something remarkable, and terrible: the driving out of native Indian people from the lands they had inhabited from time immemorial. He realized that he was there at the very moment before the Indians and the many and varied cultures they had built up over centuries … vanished. Between “civilized” expansion and missionary zeal not only the physical but the cultural existence of every tribe was being obliterated. Curtis’s realization became an interest, and the interest became a fascination, and the fascination became an obsession, and for the next quarter century the obsession would send him throughout the country racing the tide of progress to find the remnants of each tribe, to talk to elders, and to make a record of what was disappearing.
The result of and also the purpose for this project was supposed to be a multi-volume masterwork of biography, ethnology, anthropology, and – perhaps most prominently – photography, each volume of The North American Indian concentrating on a small number of tribes, or just one, depending on how much access he could gain and how much information he could glean – which depended on how much of each tribe still survived. “Supposed to be” – because nothing, especially art and especially dreams, is ever that simple. It was an expensive proposition to travel to every tribe (and ghost of a tribe) and make the extensive record he insisted upon: not simply photographs (though Curtis’s photos were never simple; his preferred method of developing was the most deluxe and most expensive, and when he couldn’t do that he did the second most), but audio recordings and, when he met up with the technology, film – and while Curtis had long since been able to charge top dollar for his society portraits, it didn’t take long for his personal finances to begin to suffer. In a way, this was a very familiar story. An artist with a big, spectacular, life-changing, world-changing idea can’t afford its execution on his own, and everyone he turns to for assistance has the same reaction: “What a great project! Why, it will be a boon to humanity. I hope you get lots of donations for it. You let me know how that goes. Bye now.”
I loved this book. The personalities involved in the Project were many and varied – from Teddy Roosevelt to Chief Joseph, from J.P. Morgan to Libbie Custer – and so were their motivations. The overweening belief that one’s way of life and of worship is simply better than anyone else’s, driving armies of spiritual and bureaucratic missionaries to stomp the native cultures into something more resembling themselves (only inferior, of course, because they were never sufficiently like). The money men who had made all their profits by always looking for substantial returns, unable to divorce even a philanthropic and priceless gesture from the need to see it produce revenue. The heads buried so deep in the sand of false, but pretty, history that any attempt to uncover a real story is fought against, viciously. The bitterness of former partners left behind to pick up slack and keep the home fires burning and all that, with little to show for it. The obsession, blind to everything else, overwhelming everything else, from familial affection to self-preservation. It’s all here, and more besides, skilfully woven together and picked apart in utterly readable, often chatty (I loved that the Sioux are described as “scary good at bloodletting”), sometimes poetic prose.
If nothing else, I’m deeply appreciative of having been introduced to Curtis’s photographs. The Kindle edition I read was lacking there – many of the referenced photos are included in the book, but not all of those were visible to me as I read; given a choice, I would prefer this book in paper form, to allow for quicker and easier access to the images while reading. (Meanwhile, I’ve begun collecting them on Pinterest.)
From a perspective of a hundred years later, it all makes so much more sense, all seems so much more vital than it must have to Curtis’s wife. She was the one who suffered from his obsession – stuck at home with a growing family of small children, coping with her husband’s oft-abandoned portrait studio and the family feud left in Edward’s wake and – harshest of all – the steady draining away of the family’s money into funding The Project. But the view from here is so different. Despite the protracted spent on the project, the pressure Curtis felt to make haste was palpable: even just reading I was always aware of the desperation to capture and record as much as possible before it was too late, before the cultures were gone and the elderly who were the only ones to remember were dead. It felt like trying to catch hold of the edge of the tide as it went out.
From here, Curtis is utterly vindicated. His work was important enough to warrant the suffering. His is in many cases the only such preservation done – there are several stories of tribes many years after, when all of the elders were gone and no one was left to remember the old ways which had suddenly become important again, turning to Curtis’s work and through it being able to resurrect the ways they were so long forbidden. I think he’d be pleased.
- North American Indian Photographs, c.1900’s (vintag.es)
- St. Louis Art Museum explores Edward Curtis’ complicated legacy (stltoday.com)
- Edward S. Curtis Sets Auction Record (theonlinephotographer.typepad.com)
- Quote o’ the Day: Hin-mah-too-yah-la-kekt (theonlinephotographer.typepad.com)