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Review: Edward Curtis' Iconic Indians at the Amon Carter
by Jerome Weeks 16 Dec 2009

Earlier this year, the Amon Carter bought a rare, complete set of Edward S. Curtis’ monumental work of photography, The North American Indian. Culled from 30 years of research and more than 40,000 photos, the 20-volume work was forgotten and Curtis went bankrupt. But it contains some of the only visual evidence of a number of the 80 tribes Curtis documented — and it helped shape the way we view native Americans. Jerome Weeks reviews.


Chief Garfield – Jicarilla, photogravure, 1904

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Earlier this year, the Amon Carter Museum acquired a rare, complete set of Edward S. Curtis’ monumental project, The North American Indian. It’s a significant addition to the Carter’s holdings in both photography and Western art, and now the museum has put the work on display, albeit in a limited manner.

Beginning in 1899, Edward S. Curtis, a Seattle portrait photographer, spent 30 years documenting native Indians from Alaska to Texas. He planned to capture what he thought was “the vanishing Indian” and publish the results in a costly, exclusive, limited edition of 20 volumes with accompanying portfolios of large-size prints.  The incredibly ambitious project took a lot longer and cost a lot more than he dreamed. Fewer than half of the 500 sets were ever printed, and although Curtis was initially bankrolled by financier J. P. Morgan, he eventually went bankrupt, lost his negatives in a divorce and his work was nearly forgotten.

Regardless of his financial troubles, Curtis was far outside the New York photographic modernism of the ’20s and ’30s — the Steichens and Steiglitzes. It was likely he and his subjects would have been sidelined in any event. Nonetheless, The North American Indian became one of the most important publications in United States history. So says John Rohrbach, the Amon Carter’s senior curator of photographs.

Rohrbach: “And I say that not only because of its scope and its beauty but because Curtis really molded our image of American Indians.”

We’ve all seen these photographic icons; they’re part of our national memory. That’s because while most people through the ’40s and ’50s had never heard of Curtis’ work, Hollywood researchers did (after the failure of this project, Curtis wound up working there). Those classic, pensive, stone-faced Indians pictured against towering canyon walls and Monument Valley mesas that appear so often in director John Ford’s Westerns (left) – they’re like footnotes to Curtis’ work.

EdwardCurtisBecause his photogravure process used etched copper plates like negatives, Curtis’ prints have the rich brown tones and deep shadows of beautiful engravings. The Amon Carter has put up 53 of them, many from the first volume, when Curtis’ treatment of Indians was more condescending, more soft-focus and sentimental.  Curtis was entirely self-taught as a photographer and ethnographer — he quit school in the sixth grade — and he initially saw native Indians as essentially all alike and all of them noble savages doomed to fade away. But as he documented them (including learning several languages and recording them spoken on wax cylinders), Curtis’ appreciation of the nuances, of the hard facts of everyday life and the cultural achievements of the different tribes became more observant,  more developed.

In fact, the complete set of The North American Indian includes some  2,000 prints of more than 80 tribes — in a few cases, they’re our only visual record of these tribes.  So the Amon Carter show, Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian, is welcome but it’s more a tantalizing introduction, just a taste, rather than the in-depth, extensive exhibition Curtis’ great work cries out for.