by Carmen Van Kerckhove
Curtis’ images of Indians are burned into the hearts and minds of many Americans to this day. They are also at the center of controversy.
The photos are so luminous and exquisitely composed that it is impossible to imagine the disputation that rages around them. Curtis started as a society photographer in Seattle, and his portraits of Indians are as stunning as those he might have taken of big-wigs…
Curtis’ images have not been universally welcomed in Indian country. Many Indians — and non-Indian scholars — object to Curtis’ methods, even if the results are stunning. For instance, Curtis arranged many of the photos carefully and at times ludicrously. His Hopi women ground corn in ceremonial dress, and he sometimes clothed individuals in items from other tribes.
Still, as UCSD scholar Ross Frank and Heidi Wigler, the Wangenheim librarian point out, Curtis’ legacy is troubling on more serious grounds. Curtis “collected” people, their dwellings, and their material culture (baskets, clothing, cradleboards, for instance). Anthropologists shelved Indians and their artifacts in museums — thousands of Indian remains rested in museums until repatriation — but Curtis froze them in images. “His approach was anthropological, he wanted to capture an ideal in a pure form, as if the outside world didn’t exist,” says Wigler.
Curtis was only interested in the Indian past, because the Indian present was “spoiled” by Euroamerican intrusions, and, like most Americans of his day, he was convinced that Indians had no future. So he carefully eliminates the white presence in Indian life. His photo of a Hopi ceremonial shows only Indians participating and watching; another “photojournalistic” version of the same ceremonial shows many whites attending (as they do today)…
Even more seriously, Curtis openly displays “scientific racism” in the photos. At the turn of the twentieth century, anthropologists were measuring skulls, creating categories of peoples, and using science to relate personality to race and to assert the superiority of the Caucasian race. (Anthropologist Frank Boas revolutionized the field when he railed against these bedrock ideas.)
Frank points out that Curtis named noteworthy individuals he photographed, like Geronimo, but he left most of his subjects suspended in anonymity, their individuality obliterated by their race. A Diegueño woman is simply “Southern Diegueño Woman,” and a Qahátíka Girl is “A Type of Desert Indian.”