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Talking Back 

Native American perspectives on Edward Curtis' iconic photography

"MyAunt Viola" by Judith Lowry

"MyAunt Viola" by Judith Lowry

Like many creators of iconic portraits, Edward S. Curtis became famous for taking photos of people whose names the average viewer is unlikely to ever know. His prolific work—thousands of striking sepia-tone portraits of Indigenous people living in the American West in the early 1900s—offers a romanticized perspective on Native life shaped by Curtis' aesthetic and the influence of big money.

It is within this context, and against the backdrop of a major showing of Curtis' work in Bend hosted by Atelier 6000, that Native American Art History professor Justine Lowry explores contemporary response by Native Americans to his celebrated photographs.

While critical perspectives on Curtis' work are largely glowing, reactions from Native folks are more varied.

"First, there is a very prideful and positive response to seeing the faces of so many Indigenous people covering the West," Lowry explains. But as more Indigenous people join the conversations happening in academia and the art world, that response is becoming more nuanced. "I think the essence of contemporary Indigenous responses to this body of work has to do with the perpetuation of stereotypes and untold histories."

Despite the large volume of work Curtis created, the photos don't always tell the full story. Though his project purported to document Indigenous communities at risk of disappearing—and though Curtis has been described as an ethnographer—critics note that his photos were frequently staged in a way that erased the realities of the time in favor of an idyllic past.

"I do not see the work of Edward Curtis as being anthropological. Curtis practiced too many manipulations and omissions in his work for it to be documentary," Lowry says.

"Everything I have read about Curtis leads me to think that he was motivated by his impulse to express his personal creative vision and aesthetic. Curtis also sought a high degree of exposure and notoriety. None of this detracts from the technical skill and creative genius behind his work, but it is very different from the idea of Edward Curtis as an ethnographer."

These manipulations and omissions ranged from removing physical objects that spoke to modern life to redacting the names of his models.

"Edward Curtis gave his photographs titles like 'Old Salish Woman' when he had full knowledge of his model's actual name," she points out.

Reducing individuals to cultural caricatures is by no means exclusive to Curtis' work. Other iconic portraits likewise hold up specific people as a sort of shorthand for cultural or economic circumstances, such as Steve McCurry's 1984 photo, "Afghan Girl," and Dorthea Lange's 1936 photo, "Migrant Woman."

One way Native communities are reclaiming ownership of Curtis subject matter is by working to identify the people in the photograph, reuniting their personhood with their photographic depiction. Lowry says there are also efforts underway to give Native people access to photographs of their ancestors held in major collections. And while Curtis failed to ensure this kind of accuracy and access in his lifetime, she says that his body of work is still of value to Native American people, despite the complexities.

"Curtis photographed human beings; mothers, grandmothers, fathers, grandfathers, and children," Lowry says. "This alone is a gift for the descendants."

Still, she can't help but wonder how Curtis' legacy—and impact on attitudes about Indigenous people—might have shifted had he taken a more documentary approach.

"I do wonder what our collective ideas about Native peoples would look like today if Curtis had chosen to photograph what was really going on during his lifetime," Lowry says. "What I mean by that is, Curtis did not take pictures of children being torn from their mother's arms because they were being forced to go to boarding schools. Curtis did not show the forced removals, the death, the starvation, or any of the strife of that time."

Had Curtis photographed the "often brutal" reality of the times, she wonders, would it have impacted our understanding of the history? Perhaps. But because Curtis' worked hinged on the fascination of white Americans with a predetermined, almost mythical, version of Native American life, he may not have secured funding and an audience any other way.

While exhibits of Curtis' work no doubt raise some degree of awareness about Native American people in a society where they are so often discounted, Lowry notes that the impact of his photos depends on how well-educated the audience is. Typically, they don't know much.

"As someone who has worked on behalf of Native American students in higher education, I have very often been surprised at the lack of knowledge or understanding about Native cultures when communicating with mainstream folks," says Lowry, who previously served as Central Oregon Community College's Native American Program Coordinator. "I do not claim to know everything about Native cultures, but I know a bit about my own—Maidu, Pit River, Washoe—and that has helped me to understand our world in a way that is unique to Native people. I do not often run into non-Native people who discuss colonization or the lasting effects of colonization on a regular basis."

Lowry's upcoming talk, "Shadow Catcher: Edward Curtis Through Native Eyes," will explore artistic responses to Curtis' work as a way to talk back to what was otherwise a one-sided exchange. Among the images she'll be discussing is a painting by her grandmother Judith Lowry, called "My Aunt Viola." The painting (shown to the left) is based on a photograph of the elder Lowry's aunt, who took a temporary job at a local fair dressing up and parading around as an "Indian"—that is, in the dress and style that the public had come to expect from Hollywood Westerns.

Curtis' photos, which present a staged snapshot of Native life, elicit complex emotions, ripe for discussion.

"The pictures are of human beings with individual lives, stories and depth beyond my scope of knowing," Lowry explains. "My reaction to these photos are of awe and sadness. They are incredibly beautiful but I understand some of what was happening to Native people during this time in history and what is still going on today, so there will always be sadness."

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