"In gathering the lore of the Indians of the Plains one hears only of yesterday. His thoughts are of the past; today is but living death, and his very being is permeated with the hopelessness of tomorrow" Edward S Curtis, The North American Indian, 20 volumes, 1907-30, vol III p xi
"The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other; consequently the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time." Edward Sheriff Curtis
Twenty volumes, each nearly 300 pages long, and twenty portfolios containing over 2,200photographs, the work of Edward Curtis was published in an original limited edition of 500 sets, and so was inaccessible and largely unheralded.
Born in 1868 near Whitewater, Wisconsin, as a boy Edward Curtis built his own camera and taught himself to expose and develop film to make photographic prints. By the age of seventeen he was apprenticed to a photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1887 his family moved to Seattle, Washington where Edward continued to take photographs, including some of the local Native Americans. He married Clara Phillips in 1892 and ran his own photographic studio.
Owing to Grinnell’s stature among the Piegans, Curtis was allowed to witness the Sun Dance ceremonies, something which native Americans rarely allow, even today, in fact guide books warn the visitor to stay away from these rituals which were at one time banned by the United States government in an attempt to suppress and destroy native American culture. They witnessed young men voluntarily submitting themselves to physical pain in search of visions while in a trance like condition induced by fasting, cleansing, agony and exhaustion. Edward Curtis began to understand the moral strength and fortitude which underlay the values of these peoples. This developed into a commitment to record their culture for posterity which was, in the words of the title of his photograph of Navaho riders, “vanishing”.
Befriended by President Theodore Roosevelt, who had visited and traveled widely in “the West”, even establishing a cattle ranch, in 1906 he was employed to take the president’s inaugural pictures and those for Roosevelt’s daughter’s wedding. Roosevelt also helped Curtis to obtain financial backing to support the ambitious undertaking to which he would devote all his energy and which would undermine his family life and his marriage.
Edward Curtis set out to record: "all features of Indian life and environment … the young and the old, with their habitations, industries, ceremonies, games, and everyday customs,"
Criticisms of Curtis’s photographs on the grounds that they are posed creations of the photographer miss the point completely. All photographs may be criticized for this, just as motion pictures and painted pictures are not the truth, neither are still photographs and it is naďve in the extreme to think that the camera can tell the truth. Gerald Vizenor, in his “Edward Curtis: Pictorialist and Ethnographic Adventurist” asks “Why, several generations later, would natives embrace these romantic pictures as real moments of their own cultural memories?” The answer is simple, he captured the spirit of the people and represented them in an acceptable, sympathetic manner. The issue of faking is an irrelevancy borne of an unrealistic and false expectation of photographs as showing the truth. Even the use of the word faked is pejorative. They never can be the truth, whether it be deliberately staged or otherwise, any more than written historical evidence can be expected to be unbiased. The native peoples realize what a monumental task Curtis set himself and what a phenomenal artistic and historical resource he left.
This moving photograph of Hollow Horn Bear is a fantastic example of the art of Edward Curtis and how much it can reveal. The characteristic pose of the subject is unsmiling, resolute, dignified and inscrutable. Like another of my favourites, also a Brule warrior of repute, Two Strike, Hollow Horn Bear has a regal majesty about him which seems to radiate an inner strength. This might be oblivious to the tragic consequences endured by his people if it wasn’t for the eyes. Whereas Two Strike looks resignedly downcast towards the floor, Hollow Horn Bear looks questioningly at the camera his eyes bore into you asking you the question WHY? Why has this happened to me? Why has this happened to my people? The overwhelming sadness is exacerbated by the appearance of the former strength and pride of the both Two Strike and Hollow Horn Bear. As representatives of their people, both men’s leathery, tanned skin reflect their outdoor life and hint at them growing up in a natural environment. Now however, all this has gone, and they are left bemused and depressed. The only photographs taken by Curtis which show the Native Americans smiling were those of Eskimos. “The Eskimo people,” Curtis wrote, “are healthy, as a rule, and exceptionally happy because they have been little affected by contact with civilization.”