Over the last few months, I’ve been taking a photography course part time. It has, for one thing, proven a great excuse to page through photo books at length under the guise of ‘work’. For another, the history portion of the course has meant discovering a host of photographers whose names I hadn’t previously known.
Among the pioneering artists whose photos I’ve been studying is Edward S. Curtis, a photographer and ethnographer known for his long-time work documenting the lives of Native American people in the Western reaches of the United States in the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries.
Curtis’s personal bio seems every bit as dramatic and compelling as his choice of subject matter. Born into abject poverty and never attaining a formal education beyond the sixth grade, he would go on to befriend President Theodore Roosevelt, convince J.P. Morgan to fund his ambitious documentary project, and gain acceptance into the higher echelons of the oldest cultures on the North American continent. At one time, he was also the country’s best-known photographer.
His documentary enterprise, which was initially meant to take just five years, eventually stretched to thirty and would plunge Curtis into debt, marital problems, and failing health. Even so, again not unlike his photographic subjects, he managed to persevere. Anne Makepeace characterises the nature of his determined undertaking as follows:
‘Like most of his contemporaries, Curtis believed that Indian cultures were vanishing. War and disease had decimated the native population. A census taken in 1906 showed that American Indians had decreased by 95 percent from their precontact numbers. At the turn of the century, Curtis discovered the richness and diversity of the western tribes and became determined to make a record of their traditional ways of life before they disappeared. Between 1900 and 1930 he traveled from Mexico to the Arctic, from the Rockies to the Pacific, photographing and recording more than 80 tribes. He created an astonishing body of work: 40,000 photographs, the first full-length ethnographic motion picture, 10,000 wax-cylinder recordings, 20 volumes of ethnographic text with accompanying portfolios, and several books of Indian stories.’
Looking over Curtis’s body of work — which, incidentally, entered the public domain this year — I was struck equally by the technical proficiency and artistic quality of his work. As Christopher Cardozo put it, this dual mastery ‘is one of the core reasons his work has endured for over one hundred years and made him the most widely collected and published photographer in the history of photography.’
Somewhat more idiosyncratic, however, was my surprise at discovering among the beautiful, emotionally complex portraits of hundreds of Native American people a similarly richly detailed record of the incredible garments and adornments they wore. Fashion has long been fascinated by the aesthetics of indigenous peoples — moccasins, fringed leather, Southwestern jewellery, Cowichan sweaters, to name just a few examples — so seeing such a detailed account from a century ago feels like a rare privilege. The clothing depicted in the images selected below, themselves representing just a fraction of Curtis’s total output, is no small part of the intimate and expressive photographic accounts Curtis produced as his life’s work. I hope you’ll find them as compelling and instructive as I have.
All images and captions are sourced from The Library of Congress Curtis Collection.
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