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Friday, March 23, 2012

Noble Portraits, Controversial Representations

This week, the Smithsonian’s Past Imperfect blog featured a fascinating post on famed photographer Edward S. Curtis. A Wisconsin native, Curtis moved to Seattle, bought a camera and became a partner in a photography studio. In 1898 he met anthropologist George Bird Grinnell and the two forged a friendship which would ultimately lead Curtis to his vocation - photographing Native Americans.

Grinnell invited Curtis to accompany him on an expedition to Alaska in 1899 and an excursion to Montana the following year. It was there, in the land of the Piegan Blackfeet, that Curtis's efforts to capture Native Americans on his glass negatives began. He lobbied for and received the financial backing of J.P. Morgan. By 1930 he had taken more than 40,000 pictures and created the multivolume The North American Indian, described by the Library of Congress as “one of the most significant and controversial representations of traditional American Indian culture ever produced.” That work is available digitally from the Library of Congress’s American Memory project.

By 1930 Curtis has also fallen on hard times. He was divorced, facing financial ruin and in poor physical and mental health. The Smithsonian blog notes that when Curtis passed in 1952 at the age of 84, the last line of his New York Times obituary noted, “Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer.”

The blog also pointed out that Mr. Curtis’s work has been the subject of much criticism, specifically for his manipulation of subjects and practice of having those subjects pose and reenact ceremonies. Despite that, his work is still a collection of magnificent, noble portraits.

The image of Curtis at top comes from the University of Washington portraits database.

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