Edward S. Curtis's "Representations": Then and Now

Article excerpt

Introduction

This paper concerns the documentary photographs of Edward S. Curtis (1865-1952) and their appropriation by three contemporary Canadian artists. "To take something for one's own use" is one meaning of appropriation, according to art historian Robert S. Nelson. And another, more sinisterly, implies "an improper taking of something and even abduction or theft" (1996, 117-8). Curtis is well known today because of the publication and re-publication of his photographs, films about him, and numerous scholarly and popular studies examining his subjects. A leading American scholar, Vine Deloria, Jr. says: "Everyone loves the Edward Curtis Indians" (Lyman 1982, 11). While there is much praise for his accomplishments, Curtis has also become the favorite target of writers on Native culture who claim that he "misrepresented history" by staging his photographs and having a romantic attitude by idealizing his figures and invoking nostalgia for the past. Many contemporary artists in Canada are creating multimedia art works incorporating photographs, such as Joane Cardinal-Schubert, Carl Beam, and George Littlechild. Their photographs originate in either archives or family albums, but are not from Curtis. A photographer, Jeff Thomas, uses Curtis as a foil for his own contemporary photographs in his project "A Conversation with Edward S. Curtis" (2001), visible on the web (www.ccca.ca/c/media/t/thomas/curtis/kamlee03.html).

The artists under discussion here use Curtis's photographs because they are images familiar to the general public and to the art community. Two artists who rely heavily on Curtis's photographs for content in their own artworks are Jane Ash Poitras (b. 1951) and Pierre Sioui (b. 1950). Both are remarkably silent in regards to Curtis and simply do not mention him in interviews or statements, an irony made more emphatic by the fact that they are artists with Native heritages and are using Curtis's old photographs to establish "identity." The third artist is Liz Magor (b. 1948) who emulated Curtis's aesthetics and titles to record her friends camping. Magor is not a Native artist, but she has been criticized for appropriating images that "do not belong" to her heritage. To imply ownership, as some cultural critics claim, is to assume Curtis's photographs belong to Natives and Natives alone. Another contradiction is the deliberate mis-naming of images by Poitras and Magor as if they were testing the viewer's knowledge of Curtis's photographs and titles.

These three artists, in creating their own visual statements, are connected only by their use of images and titles recognizable as Curtis's. This deliberate referential strategy is one that, in addition to instant recognition, also engenders controversy. As this paper intends to demonstrate, the issues surrounding Curtis and his photographic legacy are antithetical and ironic. Curtis himself was driven by the fear that his subjects were disappearing so there would be "no tomorrow." Yet, as these contemporary artists reveal, Curtis's photographs have a "tomorrow" in contemporary artworks.

To begin, a brief inquiry into Curtis's achievements is followed by assessments of his work by writers on Native culture today. An examination of some samples of art by Jane Ash Poitras and Pierre Sioui display the range of images Curtis recorded and their use by artists who seem interested in Curtis's images for what and how they are presented. Liz Magor's Field Work (1989) does not represent Natives, but does indicate Magor's awareness of Curtis's aesthetics and deals with a wider and a different interpretation of "identity."

Curtis's achievements

Curtis viewed his documentary project of making a photographic record of the North American Indian as "a complete scientific study" which had "no tomorrow." As Curtis stated in his introduction to Volume One: "It has been the aim to picture all features of the Indian life and environment--types of the young and the old, with their habitations, industries, ceremonies, games, and everyday customs" (Introduction, The North American Indian, Curtis Archive). …