Samuel Sollers Chambers
Explorative or Exploitative: The Photography of Edward Curtis
Edward Curtis, Chief Joseph, 1903. Library of Congress catalog of Curtis’s The North American Indian
The photographs taken of Native American peoples by Edward Curtis, have been highly praised by many as showing the intricacies of Native life, however they come with a great deal of controversy. In the early 20th century, Edward Curtis embarked on a project to take photographs of the Native American peoples in the western United States. This project was titled The North American Indian. With the financial support of the banker J.P Morgan, as well as the full support of President Theodore Roosevelt, Curtis was given free creative reign over his photographs. The idea behind The North American Indian was to document the way of life of the people who, in his words were a “vanishing race.” There is evidence to suggest that Curtis in fact edited his own photos, removing modern aspects of western culture to give the illusion that Native culture were in fact vanishing, when really they were not. What is often not part of discussions involving this project is why there were aspects of Western culture in the Native society to begin with. These are most likely ignored because they sheds light on a dark time in America’s past, a time that involved Native children being sent to boarding schools in an effort to assimilate them into “white America,” a time that had the federal government take away the lands of native peoples and in some cases use extreme violence against them. Even with the controversies and negative implications of Curtis’s work, it is hard not to appreciate the photographs on an artistic level. But there has to be a line. With my paper, I will attempt to draw that line and figure out at what point, if any, Curtis’s work can be appreciated as great photography without being seen as a false representation of native culture. Was Curtis exploiting the people in an effort to gain fame and fortune, or was he simply caught up in his own generation’s ideas about Native Americans?
Slideshow coming son