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The photographer of the American Indians His monumental photographic work documented a world heading towards extinction.
From the chiefs on horseback in their plumed headdresses to the life on the reservations by Lorena Carbonara
Edward Sheriff Curtis
From 1901 and for over thirty years, Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) documented in photographs about eighty tribal groups in North America, using up forty thousand rolls of film, and recording, with one of the first Edison instruments, the spoken languages of these people. With the intention of creating a testimony to the existence of what was considered by American society of the time as a “vanishing race”, this ethno-photographer carried out his exceptional work right to the end, despite being the object of criticism by historiographers of that time and after his death.
Curtis’ Indians are often posed, regal in their appearance and form and so not very realistic, according to some critics, who in this majesty see the shadow of the romanticization of the figure of the native Americans. Coming from the pictorial traditions of photography, Curtis created images which were more of an impressionistic character than a documentary one, often coming to an agreement with the Indian models before the shoot, and then paying them for their services.
He died unknown to the larger public and was re-evaluated only in the 1970s; he was twenty-one when the massacre of Wounded Knee took place in 1890, the moment that went down in history as the culminating and final stage in the struggle between the white and the Native culture, marking American public opinion and probably influencing its sentimental perception of the American Indian world.
In the texts which accompany his monumental photographic work, Curtis describes the life on the reservations with all its contradictions, though he continues to take “iconic” photos of chiefs wearing plumed headgear on horseback, dominating uncontaminated nature. As Hans Christian Adam affirms in his introduction to Indiani d’America published by Taschen (2007), “it so happens that Curtis’ mystical Indian has been placed alongside the solitary cowboy who rides at sundown, the closing scene of so many Westerns”.
It is very easy to fall into the use of stereotypes when dealing with the theme of visual representation of the Native or of the pioneer, who take their turn on the stage as “red shadows” (which was the Italian title of John Ford’s film of 1939 originally entitled Stagecoach) and “palefaces” (like the silent short written and starring Buster Keaton in 1922).
The criticism of “excessive artistry” in his photography, which academics of the time aimed at Curtis was based on the claim that what he described graphically was a world “heading towards extinction”: while the Apsaroke in the pictures rode their horses and the Maricopa women wove their baskets, while the women of the Hesquiat tribe gathered berries and the Sioux Oglala raised the sacred pipe to the skies to praise the Great Mystery, the first cars produced in America were rolling off the assembly lines.
Whether it was a world heading towards extinction or not, is a controversial point: on one hand, the massive presence of the white man in the previous centuries had interfered in the life of the indigenous populations, modifying it notably; on the other, the native cultures had not “disappeared” in the face of the growing presence of colonisers and pioneers as the theory of the “vanishing race” would have had us believe.
Edward Sheriff Curtis certainly had the virtue, whose consequences have survived over the centuries down to the present day, of wanting to meet the individuals, and not the personalities, not wanting to mingle with the tourists who, in the first decade of the twentieth century watched the Snake Dance of the Hopi Indians during their train journeys on the Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fè lines as if it was an ad hoc show especially for them.
The North American Indian, the encyclopaedia in twenty volumes published 1907 and 1930, is the result of the work of the ethno-photographer which covers a spatially vast territory and a highly delicate epoch of social and cultural transition. The eye of the camera was certainly a white one, an important factor in understanding the point of view from which the Native was framed, but we cannot but notice the great expressive and a-temporal force of the portraits of Raven Blanket (Nez Percès), Morning Eagle (Piegan), Two Moons (Cheyenne) and of all those who revealed themselves in front of Curtis’ lens.