Two truisms to live by—“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.” This dichotomy of perception is never more pronounced than when the subject of Edward S. Curtis’ photography comes up. The famed photographer of the American West, who created iconic images of Native peoples at the start of the 20th century by photographing 80 tribes in more than 40,000 poses, has been both lauded and decried for the last 100 years.
That controversy over his work, methods, and motivations continues in two exhibits now on display at the Arizona State Museum. Regarding Curtis: Contemporary Indian Artists Respond to the Curtis Imagery is a showing of 18 contemporary Native American artists in a variety of media whose work treats issues of identity in response to the Curtis works. These artists’ pieces and personal statements lend depth and add complexity to the early photogravures.
Jody Naranjo Folwell-Turpia, a Santa Clara Pueblo clay artist referred to as the Avant-Garde Matriarch of Native American pottery, says: “Whether romanticized or contested, Curtis’ images continue to influence our perceptions of Native identity. This exhibit and these artists hope to inspire different thought about past and contemporary Native cultures and what it means to be Indian.”
Folwell’s daughter, Susan, goes a step further—“From the moment foreign feet touched Native soil, change was inevitable. The pain of assimilation and the brutality of displacement still echo today, leaving a longing for a past that can never be recovered. What I see in Curtis’ work is someone who understood the beauty of a culture and a quickly vanishing way of life.”
Documentary photographer Cara Romero (Chemehuevi) calls Curtis’ stereotypical style an example of the exploitative nature of photography. “His images once defined Native American imagery and for far too long these images perpetuated a mainstream understanding of what a Native American looks like, and perhaps, a feeling of what a Native American should look like.
“Indian Country has come a long way since Curtis photographed his first subject a century ago,” says Annabel Wong, an Akimel O’odham from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Tribe. “As a people, we have developed in ways Curtis would never have imagined.”
Running concurrently with this exhibit is a student project (Photo ID: Portraits by Native Youth) in which Tohono O’odham students from Ha:san Preparatory and Leadership School explored their own photographic portraits involving concepts of identity and self-expression in response to the Curtis works.