In 1906, J. P. Morgan commissioned Edward S. Curtis to produce a series of books depicting Native American life. Edward S. Curtis Portraits contains over 250 of the project’s beautiful and haunting portraits.
“In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose pictures are pictures, not merely photographs.” —President Theodore Roosevelt
Talented photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis set out on the project with the goal of becoming a successful portrait artist, but as he worked taking photographs of the “vanishing Indian,” he discovered a calling as an ethnographer and embarked on a mission to document every aspect of traditional Native American culture before it disappeared forever. He considered the loss of Native American traditions a national tragedy and sacrificed his financial security, marriage, and even his health to pursue his mission.
Curtis’s highly expressive portraits convey the full range of human emotions, attesting to the trust he established with his subjects, and serve as exquisite examples of classic portraiture. From Alaska to Mexico, the photographs in this compact volume feature tribes such as:
And many more
Though Curtis has been criticized for idealizing the people he photographed with props and staged shots, his deep respect for them and earnest attempt to understand them is apparent in his work. Today, these portraits allow us a precious glimpse into Native American life as it existed before complete colonial expansion in the United States.
While it is kind of weird how Curtis posed his subjects and covered up their modern clothing, there’s no doubt that his portraits of Native Americans are some of the most striking and emotional I’ve seen, in these pages and elsewhere. His subjects seem alive, with clear emotions on their faces and piercing gazes. It’s not like looking at a portrait – it’s like looking at a person who’s standing before you, holding your gaze and insisting that you really see them.
I’ve seen Curtis’ portraits before, but never grouped together like this, in chapters that mirror the original volumes, and never with the accompanying explanatory text identifying their names, their tribes, when Curtis took the photos, and whether they are deliberately posed and dressed or more natural. It gives the portraits even more gravity and presence.
Even with his questionable actions in posing them, Curtis’ portraits convey the message he was perhaps aiming for. That even though many of the ways of life for Native Americans have been lost, the people themselves are not gone.
As I stare into the eyes of Curtis’ subjects, as I take in their happiness and pain, their contemplation and accusation, I find myself tearing up. I’ve never been this affected by a portrait before. Curtis was without a doubt an artist and master of his craft and we are lucky that he devoted his life to capturing Native Americans on film before their ways of life could be completely lost.
*Thanks to NetGalley and Quarto Publishing Group – Chartwell Books for providing an e-arc for review.