Photography as Re-Enactment
Part One

It is difficult to know what to do with Edward Curtis (1868-1952)–was he a photographer, an anthropologist, an ethnographer, a film director, a historian? Did he combine all of these disciplines or did Curtis participate in none of these activities? Perhaps Curtis himself provided the best clue when he said, “While primarily a photographer, I do not see or think photographically,” and indeed, when one views his sepia-toned images of Native Americans and the romanticized mood that has been created for the subjects, the word “artist” is the designation that comes to mind. Edward Curtis undertook a task that was ultimately a thankless one, that of attempting to capture a civilization deliberately extinguished before its heirs could perish with the last lingering memories of what it had once meant to be a “native” of America, living free. It is perhaps no coincidence that when Curtis began his epic journeys through the surviving settlements of Native Americans in 1890, was the same year that an official United States census revealed that the frontier or a lightly populated region no longer existed in the West. The population was now two persons or more per square mile. A young historian, Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), was so impressed with that apparently arcane fact that in 1893 he presented a paper titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”

Turner defined the term as, “..the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization..” and noted that “ lies at the hither edge of free land.” This famous essay primarily focused on how the idea of a “frontier” or a place where one could go West, from the Allegheny mountains to the plains of the Midwest to the coastal edges of Washington to “settle” territory assumed to be open and there for the taking. What is remarkable about this essay is that it studies the impact of the concept of the “West” or the “frontier” as a place beyond, needing to be civilized and rendered productive, upon the “American” imagination and character. For Turner, “American” is always white, and, while one would not expect in such a short essay, that the would mention the haven that former slaves found west of the Mississippi, the absence of the original Americans, the natives is very telling. For Turner, the mis-named “Indians” have vanished. In not mentioning the impact of the frontier and its ending upon the minds of Native Americans, the historian may have been sticking closely to his stated topic or he may have, along with many Americans, assumed that after decades of physical and cultural genocide, that the paradox of inhabitants living on “free” land had been solved. It would be decades before the American conscience would be awakened in a post Civil Rights Era and authors such as Dee Brown (1908-2002) and his seminal book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), would write a more complete history of measures were taken to sweep the prairies clear for the settlers. In the meantime, there was Edward Curtis.

When Curtis began his quest to collect the remnants of cultural memories before time spirited them away, most western Native Americans–those who had survived or had not fled to Canada–had been rounded up and placed securely inside “reservations,” or lands placed “in reserve” for their use alone. Ostensibly, these lands were the homelands of the tribe, but what was ceded to the Native Americans were the worst lands, those unwanted by the whites, left behind by the settlers, who took over all desirable territory. By the 1890s, these remaining peoples were not only placed out of sight and out of mind but also were expected to “vanish.” Although the notion of a “vanishing American” had, to white people, a certain romantic appeal combined with a very pragmatic assumption of inevitability, the actual physical killing was mostly over. By the end of the century, “vanishing” involved deliberate erasure of the many stories and songs and dances of a people deemed insufficiently modern. Given that nothing of their myths or histories were worthy of recording, the children would be removed from the parents, played in boarding schools, where their hair was cut, English was learned, and the old ways were replaced with practical knowledge suited to the white world. Curtis made it his life work to recover the rich trove of recollection and experience from the Native Americans held in western reservations before it was too late and they were assimilated (vanished) into the mainstream white society.


Edward Curtis. Canyon de Chelly (1904)

As Native American historian,  George Horse Capture, noted,

Not content to deal only with the present population, and their arts and industries, he recognized that the present is a result of the past, and the past dimension must be included, as well. Guided by this concept, Curtis made 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian language and music. In addition he took over 40,000 images from over 80 tribes, recorded tribal mythologies and history, and described tribal population, traditional foods, dwellings, clothing, games, ceremonies, burial customs, biographical sketches and other primary source information: all from a living as well as past tradition. Extending the same principle to the photographs, he presented his subjects in a traditional way whenever possible and even supplied a bit of the proper clothing when his subjects had none. Reenactments of battles, moving camp, ceremonies and other past activities were also photographed. These efforts provided extended pleasure to the elders and preserve a rare view of the earlier ways of the people.

For this laudable project, Curtis was supported by President Theodore Roosevelt and funded by financier J.P. Morgan, but the time he spent collecting his materials, both visual and verbal, was also the decades when the American mind mentally shelved the remaining tribes and their lore in the place of history. Most Americans were content with Hollywood Indians, galloping about on celluloid. From 1907 to 1930 Undaunted, Curtis published twenty volumes on The North American Indians, which explained their customs and their cultures and their languages, illustrated by 75 hand-pressed photogravures and 300 pages of text. Each volume was accompanied by a portfolio of 36 photogravures. But thirty years is a long time, so long that Morgan died before Curtis had completed his work, and so long that the Great Depression moved over the nation like a black cloud, blotting out all but a passing interest in Native American culture. In the end, Curtis broke, ill, threatened by arrest from an angry ex-wife, mentally in great distress, turned the copyright for him images over to the Morgan family. In 1930, shortly after the last of the twenty volumes was published, the Morgan Company sold nineteen complete sets of the twenty-volume project, including copper plates and prints, to Charles Lauriat Books of Boston, for $1,000 in exchange for royalties. While Curtis spend the next two decades searching for gold, Lauriat attempted to sell his unwhiedly assets, but to little avail. The collection languished, was forgotten, until it was rediscovered in 1970.


Edward Curtis. The Vanishing Race, back and front (1904)

Despite such a sad ending to an endeavor begun with such high ideals, in his own time, Curtis was respected and well regarded. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt wrote the forward for the entire project:

In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose pictures are pictures, not merely photographs; whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because it is truthful. All serious students are to be congratulated because he is putting his work in permanent form; for our generation offers the last chance for doing what Mr. Curtis has done. The Indian as he has hitherto been is on the point of passing away. His life has been lived under conditions thru which our own race past so many ages ago that not a vestige of their memory remains. It would be a veritable calamity if a vivid and truthful record of these conditions were not kept. No one man alone could preserve such a record in complete form. Others have worked in the past, and are working in the present, to preserve parts of the record; but Mr. Curtis, because of the singular combination of qualities with which he has been blest, and because of his extraordinary success in making and using his opportunities, has been able to do what no other man ever has done; what, as far as we can see, no other man could do. He is an artist who works out of doors and not in the closet. He is a close observer, whose qualities of mind and body fit him to make his observations out in the field, surrounded by the wild life be commemorates. He has lived on intimate terms with many different tribes of the mountains and the plains. He knows them as they hunt, as they travel, as they go about their various avocations on the March and in the camp. He knows their medicine men and sorcerers, their chiefs and warriors, their young men and maidens. He has not only seen their vigorous outward existence, but has caught glimpses, such as few white men ever catch, into that strange spiritual and mental life of theirs; from whose innermost recesses all white men are forever barred. Mr. Curtis in publishing this book is rendering a real and great service; a service not only to our own people, but to the world of scholarship everywhere.

However history, post 1970s, has not been kind to the photographer and very real questions arise in the gulf between the admittedly beautiful photographs and their mode of ethnocentric production. Curtis was unfortunate in his timing in so many ways. A generation later than the photographers who were among the first to photograph the bewildered Native Americans in the western military forts, such as Timothy O’Sullivan, Curtis did not have access to the actual experience of native life on the plains, in the southwest or in the northwest. Working twenty years after the opening of the frontier, Curtis was forced into being an anthropologist at a time when this new profession was still being established through trial and error. Contemporary anthropology is painfully aware that the mere presence of an observer alters the situation, but in the time of Curtis his active intervention into reservation life was totally acceptable. In addition, Curtis was working within a documentary tradition that was still quite unsophisticated. In his time, “documentation” was considered “truth,” because the use of a camera created the illusion of fact as if the image itself corresponded to reality. In fact, documentation has always been framed from a particular point of view in order to make a certain point. Only selected “truths” or evidence is recorded or put forward, not out of mal fois but due to the creator looking in one direction, rather than another. But in the time of Curtis, all that was required was the effect of the real. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, Curtis was not trained and was not qualified to do the serious study he intended to do. Perhaps the fault was not his own, for he worked with a famous anthropologist and an authority on the Cherokees, George Bird Grinnell, who could have and should have advised the photographer on the proper procedures when “studying” an unfamiliar culture.

In short, the well-meaning and laudable enterprise of Edward Curtis was problematic from the very start in ways that were unknown to himself. In the process of recording the life of the remaining Native Americans, Curtis, in a flagrant disregard for accuracy, combined cultural artifacts from different tribes, turned a blind eye to the actual social conditions and economic desertion of his subjects, who in some instances, were near starvation, in favor of recreating an idealized past. When his work was rediscovered and revisited, the new historical scholarship, informed by a sharp awareness of embedded racism, could see all too starkly, the rather chilling scenario of a man, privileged by his color, exploiting a subordinated and oppressed people, forcing them to remain in a mythic past, a past that few of them had actually participated in. Acting as a powerful director, Curtis ordered up a revision of Native American life that suspiciously resembled the “Western,” the movie. Regardless of the hundreds of recordings of languages soon to be extinct, the many interviews which collected historical accounts that would have otherwise never been acquired, the work of Curtis was tainted by the superimposition of an imperial perspective upon a conquered people. The result of the photographer’s life work was a romanticized costume drama that reflected a white colonial and patronizing perspective on a doomed way of life, lovely but unable to cope with the present.


Edward Curtis. An Oasis in the Bad Lands (1905)

One would expect, therefore, for the project of Edward Curtis, from his many albums, attempts at filmmaking, thousands of photographs and so on, to be put under a scrutiny with a mindset that simply did not exist in his time. Every historian works under the same burden as that of an anthropologist, that intervention inevitably changes the field of scrutiny. Even the founder of modern history, Leopold von Ranke, stated, “History differs from all other scholarly activities by being also an art.” Ranke, who often used literary devices to relate historical events, stated in his preface to Histories of the Latin and Teutonic Nations“To history has been assigned the task of judging the past, of insuring he world of today for the benefit of future years.” He added that “Strict description of the fact, although it might limit us and prove to be unpleasant, is without doubt the supreme law.” Due to the precedents set by Ranks, the idea of an archive as being the appropriate site of research for the historian became the foundation of historical study. But in the early eighteenth century, the idea of the archive itself was not critiqued, but, given that Curtis took on multiple roles, especially as that of a collector of objects and artifacts that constituted an archive, one must consider his magnum opus an intentional archive. But is his work “art” masquerading as an archive? Is his historical research a recreation of something that had never been or was Curtis, in fact, gathering up the last of a dying culture? Do his intentions matter or does the contemporary rereading of him images take precedent? In other words, with the work of Edward Curtis we are faced with the historians’ dilemma: does one judge history in terms of today’s thinking?

If one follows the thinking of Ranke, there is one element that is hard to debate, and that is his admonishment to strictly adhere to facts. Here is where Curtis can perhaps be faulted. The facts of the actuals conditions of Native American life during the fin-de-siècle period, had he chosen to show the real situation, would have been nothing short of an indictment of a systematic crushing of a culture judged to be too inferior to survive. But, one must ask, who wanted to see such images? The audience of socially conscious critiques of governmental policies was small and the number of potential viewers of the “vanishing race” was large. In undertaking what was essentially a commercial enterprise, Edward Curtis was posthumously caught between two uneasy places–an artist attempting to be a documentarian and an amateur anthropologist, creating flawed evidence. The second part of this post on Curtis will discuss the photographer and his many contemporary critics.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

[email protected]

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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