Photogravures by Edward S. Curtis
The Eastern California Museum in Independence recently put on
exhibit a set of portrait photos created by Edward S. Curtis, one of the
most well-known and well-respected photographers of the early 20th
Century. Curtis dedicated much of his life documenting Native American
people and their way of life at the turn of the 20th Century. His work
stands as a singular achievement in recording the rich culture and
unique aspects of the daily life of nearly 100 tribes. Many of Curtis's
photos have become iconic images of individuals, such as Nez Perce Chief
Joseph, and tribes, such as the Hopi, Blackfeet, and many Pacific
The Curtis exhibit at the Eastern California Museum consists of "photogravures." The prints were struck from the original copper plates in 1978. The selection of photos on exhibit includes tribal members from the Plains, Pacific Northwest, and the Southwest.
Curtis set out to create a scholarly and artistic work that would catalog the ceremonies, beliefs, daily life and landscape of the North American Indian before their way of life was completely altered by contact with white society. From 1904 to 1930 he visited 80 tribes and took 40,000 photographs. The result of his effort was the monumental, 20-volumn masterwork, "The North American Indian."
"The great changes in practically every phase of the Indian's life that have taken place, especially within recent years, have been such that had the time for collecting much of the material, both descriptive and illustrative, been delayed, it would have been lost forever," Curtis said in 1907 at the start of his photographic quest. "The information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time," he noted. "It is this need that has inspired the present task."
While scholarly debate continues about whether Curtis used his camera to "romanticize" his subjects as a "heroic, vanishing race," and whether his posing and staging of photos and, in some cases providing props, wigs, and other costumes created objective documentation of each tribe, his proficiency as a photographer has not been called into question.
"The portraits are, quite simply, superb. Compositionally, they have a classic purity and strength which seem ageless," writes Cutis scholar A.D. Coleman. "Natural light is employed by Curtis in a consistently brilliant way ... to establish the mood of each individual portrait, and to create an unusual feeling of space within a two-dimensional image."
As for the other criticisms of the "reality" of what Curtis captured, Coleman notes, "These collaborations between Curtis and the Indians succeeded because neither he nor they were exploiting each other, but were bent on the same goal ... to record the spirit of a people, to show us all and to find out for himself what it felt like to be an Indian."
The Curtis exhibit at the Eastern California Museum consists of Curtis photogravures donated to the Museum by Wynnsan Moore and the Moore Family Trust, of Bell Canyon, CA. A photogravure is a photographic image produced from an engraving plate. The process produces prints which have the subtlety of a photograph and the art quality of a lithograph. A photogravure looks like a photograph but is a series of connected lines, rather than unconnected dots as in a photograph. The rich sepia ink and handmade paper used for the Curtis photogravures are the final elements in the production of the beautiful art prints of The North American Indian.