You can feel like you’re viewing the history of photography — as well as American history — from one of those disorienting, spinning Rotor amusement-park rides as you walk through Taft Museum of Art’s Enduring Spirit: Edward Curtis and the North American Indians. The work is powerful and artful, yet seems disconnected from the realities of its own times. (The show is up through Sept. 20.)
In room after room in the museum’s Fifth Third Gallery, there are sepia-toned photos — mostly photogravure but also other older, painstakingly crafted processing techniques — showing American Indians in environments devoid of European presence or influence. As if America was still all theirs.
They are on horses, wearing headdresses or knotted headbands, carrying children in decorated cradleboards, participating in traditional ceremonies. These photos are spectacularly evocative in their lighting and in Curtis’ focus on the details of his subjects’ clothing and ornamentation, and on the gravitas their portraits exude.
The photos appear to date from around the same time — still photography’s early days — as Matthew Brady’s Civil War work. Yet Curtis’ epic project, The North American Indian (for which he took 40,000-50,000 photographs of some 80 tribal groups and published a 20-volume set containing 1,500 images), occurred from 1900-1930.
These seem removed from the state of the nation — and cultural concerns — at that time. Think of what else was happening to photography — Alfred Stieglitz was fearlessly exploring photography as an art form rather than ethnographic documentation, Edward Steichen was doing fashion and celebrity photography for Vanity Fair and Vogue, Lewis Hine was showing the child-labor abuses in the cities.
And think of what was happening to society — World War I, the Roaring Twenties, industrialization, the automobile.
While some of the American Indian groups that Curtis photographed were largely unaffected by all that, such as the Eskimos of Alaska, others weren’t. They had largely, often forcibly, been disconnected from their histories and customs by the thrust of an expanding nation that wanted their land. And they had been struggling to adapt to a radically changed life in 20th-century America.
So Curtis’ project was conceived at least partly as a paean to the past. The first plate in his North American Indians project, prominently displayed in the first room of the Taft show that was organized by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography Minneapolis/Paris/Lausanne, reveals his intentions.
Showing several American Indians on horseback, facing away from us as they move between sunshine and shadow toward a murkily delineated cliff, it is called “The Vanishing Race – Navaho.”
In other words, Curtis sought to show us the identity American Indians once had and that he thought they might soon lose. He was looking into their past as much as their present.
As celebrated as Curtis’ photos are today for their beauty and empathy, they have also engendered controversy because of the doomy romanticism of his “vanishing race” vision. Some have pointed out that Curtis, had he chosen to document the lives of his subjects as they actually were at the time on reservations, might have helped bring better conditions.
But today that seems less important than the fact Curtis did this project at all (and at considerable personal and financial hardship). After all, who else was so committed? That his subjects cooperated, and were proud of the results, speaks for itself.
And those include no less than the famous Nez Perce Chief Joseph, subject of a standout portrait shot (in Seattle, where Curtis was working when he started the project) in 1903 and printed as a photogravure in 1911. Framed by Curtis from up close, yet with a faraway look in his eyes, he appears as an elder at the height of his power with his large, iconic shell earrings, necklaces and his hair rising up like a strong ocean wave from his forehead.
Yet by 1903 he was more survivor than leader — decades previously he had led followers in an uprising against U.S. Army attempts to relocate them to a reservation.
Curtis died in 1952. His work had fallen into obscurity but was rediscovered in the 1970s. By then, time had sorted out some of the issues related to his project’s relevance to its own time. It rises above it.
ENDURING SPIRIT: EDWARD CURTIS AND THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS is on view at the Taft Museum of Art through Sept. 20. More info: taftmuseum.org.