Portland Art Museum

Portland, OR




Edward Curtis: The North American Indian


Drawn from the permanent collection of the Portland Art Museum, Edward Curtis: The North American Indian features approximately 60 photogravures from Curtis's portfolios, highlighting many of the artist's most dramatic images. Organized by Terry Toedtemeier, the Museum's Curator of Photography, the exhibition is on view at the Portland Art Museum from April 10 through July 11, 1999.

The Portland Art Museum is fortunate to own a complete collection of Edward S. Curtis (American, 1868-1952) famed portfolios:The North American Indian . Published from 1907 to 1930, the twenty, large-scale portfolios and companion books are an exhaustive compilation of mythologies, songs, tribal customs, histories, images, and lore. Lavishly illustrated with hundreds of fine photogravure prints, complete sets of the books and portfolios were originally priced at $3,000. It is thought that no more than 300 complete sets were ever produced.

Although best known for these fine gravures, Edward S. Curtis enjoyed working in a variety of photographic print forms -- each having its own unique appearance. Included in the exhibition are a selection of original platinum, gelatin silver, sepia, and goldtone photographs.

To provide context for the Curtis exhibition, Toedtemeier has also organized a comparative selection of vintage prints by several of the artist's contemporaries. Included are gravure prints by Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Kasebier, and platinum and gelatin silver prints by Imogen Cunningham, Lewis Wickes Hine , and Darius Kinsey.

In A World History of Photograph, noted photo historian Naomi Rosenblum states that Edward Curtis envisioned American Indian life "through a veil of cultural preconceptions." Enamored of the worldview and lifestyles of earlier native populations, Curtis sought to portray Indian people as he envisioned they had been: living an unspoiled existence in a time prior to contact with Europeans. His ennobling, aesthetic treatment of his subjects was often achieved with the help of props - traditional artifacts and dress that had, by Curtis' time, long been out of use. For this reason The North American Indian portfolios have been criticized as historically inaccurate.

However, it is important to remember that by referring to a time prior to Indian-White contact, Curtis was necessarily referring to a time pre-dating the invention of photography. To achieve his goal, Curtis used an allegorical or pictorial approach, photographing his subjects dressed and staged to recall earlier times.

Allegorical themes were popular with many other photographers at turn of the century. F. Holland Day, for example, utilized photography to simulate re-enactments of the crucifixion of Christ. Photo Secessionist Myra Wiggins worked in her studio, a converted barn in Salem, Oregon, to choreograph images depicting domestic life as she envisioned it had been in 18th century Holland. Like Curtis, these photographers posed costumed subjects amidst props appropriate to a period sensibility. Although stylistic similarities exist linking Curtis and the work of certain of his contemporaries, The North American Indian portfolios stand as a unique accomplishment -- an unprecedented endeavor some 23 years in the making.

Edward Curtis: The North American Indian is sponsored by United Parcel Service.

Images from top to bottom (please click on thumbnail images to enlarge them): Women of the Desert, circa 1900, Platinum Print; Mandan Bull Boat, 1908, Photogravure; The Whaler - Makah, 1915, Photogravure; A Tewa Girl, 1921, Photogravure

Read more in Resource Library about the Portland Art Museum

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/18/10

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