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. Continue reading