The Gift of the Face: Portraiture and Time in Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian

The Gift of the Face: Portraiture and Time in Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian

The Gift of the Face: Portraiture and Time in Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian

The Gift of the Face: Portraiture and Time in Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian

Synopsis

Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian is the most ambitious photographic and ethnographic record of Native American cultures ever produced. Published between 1907 and 1930 as a series of twenty volumes and portfolios, the work contains more than two thousand photographs intended to document the traditional culture of every Native American tribe west of the Mississippi. Many critics have claimed that Curtis's images present Native peoples as a "vanishing race," hiding both their engagement with modernity and the history of colonial violence. But in this major reappraisal of Curtis's work, Shamoon Zamir argues instead that Curtis's photography engages meaningfully with the crisis of culture and selfhood brought on by the dramatic transformations of Native societies. This crisis is captured profoundly, and with remarkable empathy, in Curtis's images of the human face. Zamir also contends that we can fully understand this achievement only if we think of Curtis's Native subjects as coauthors of his project.

This radical reassessment is presented as a series of close readings that explore the relationship of aesthetics and ethics in photography. Zamir's richly illustrated study resituates Curtis's work in Native American studies and in the histories of photography and visual anthropology.

Excerpt

This book explores relationships between aesthetics, ethics, and the human experience of time in photography; it does so through a series of sustained close readings of one work, unique in the histories of photography, of anthropology, and of the Native American cultures of the United States: Edward S. Curtis’s The North American Indian. These readings are preoccupied above all with the ways in which the crisis of temporality brought on by the vast and profound cultural damage experienced by Native peoples, especially in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, comes to inhabit, in quite unexpected ways, the faces in Curtis’s portraits. The North American Indian is able to bring into view, subtly but richly, the fracturing of self and community—and also the dignity and labor with which the individuals in front of Curtis’s camera gathered up the fragments of the self in an effort to survive the ruins of their cultures. Undeniably, this achievement sits side by side with ethical and aesthetic failures in The North American Indian— the attitudes and ideologies that underwrote American colonialism have left traces in the work that are all too visible. But the present study focuses on what is exceptional rather than typical in the work: the achievement is consistent and great enough to warrant the reassessment undertaken here. This reevaluation is grounded equally in a new understanding of Curtis’s photography and of his work as a maker of photographic books and in the proposal that the Native Americans photographed by Curtis be considered, to some degree at least, coauthors of the visual meanings of The North American Indian. Hundreds of Native Americans contributed to the making of the project, and even today Native Americans embrace Curtis’s work more widely than that of any other photographer. The present study does not claim to speak of the motivations and intentions of the men, women, and children who contributed to the making of the collection in any definitive way. But it does, I hope, provide an account of The North American Indian that opens up possibilities beyond interpre-

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