| Edward S. Curtis: The Great Warriors |
By Christopher Cardozo
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Edward S. Curtis: Aesthetic Vision
Under almost any definition of the word, Edward Curtis was, himself; a highly realized "warrior." He was also clearly drawn to a wide variety of other powerful men. Indeed, it was not uncommon for him to be in the field one week with Geronimo, Red Cloud, or Chief Joseph and then, a week or two later, be in New York weekending with President Roosevelt or meeting with J. Pierpont Morgan or Andrew Carnegie. Curtis himself was affectionately called "chief" by all his staff and many acquaintances. It is extraordinary that Curtis, having grown up in abject poverty and formally educated only to the sixth grade, achieved so much and was accepted into the highest echelons of both the oldest culture on the continent and one of the most powerful societies in the world.
It is estimated that Curtis made between 40,000 and 50,000 photographs of Native Americans during the period from 1895 to 1929. While evidence survives of only 3,000 to 4,000 of these negatives, one does not need to look far to see that male portraits and male figures in the landscape, as a whole, comprise Curtis' most frequent subject matter. His magnum opus, the illustrated set of rare books entitled The North American Indian, is replete with many hundreds of images of powerful Native American males: important chiefs and innumerable warriors, hunters, and scouts.
Curtis' photographs of Native American males can he broken down into several basic stylistic categories. As can be seen in the plate section that follows this introduction, the two most basic categories are the close-up portrait and the "peopled landscape." In the close-up portraits, Curtis most frequently photographed individuals from the waist up, with a fairly tightly cropped composition. (He also occasionally photographed an individual full figure, either in a portrait tent or in the landscape and, even less frequently, created a relatively intimate portrait of two or three subjects.) In the peopled landscapes, Curtis created photographs of individuals or groups of men within a broad landscape. These images typically illustrated men engaged in an activity, often hunting, fishing, or re-enacting warfare. These photographs often emphasize the landscape and/or activity as much or more than the specific individual(s) and thus, give further context to the person(s)' lives.
Curtis was both a consummate photographer and an accomplished artist. Thus, his best photographs evidence not only a solid grasp of the multitudinous technical aspects involved in realizing a beautiful print, but, also a mastery of the subtler and more elusive skills necessary to create works of art. This dual mastery is one of the core reasons his work has endured for over one hundred years and made him the most widely collected and published photographer in the history of photography. Obviously, the Native American subjects themselves are the other principal reason Curtis' work has stood the test of time. Their powerful presence, dignity, and emotional depth are all quintessential underpinnings of Curtis' photographs. That all these qualities come through so profoundly in Curtis' most compelling and evocative photographs is not only a testament to Curtis' technical and artistic mastery but, perhaps even more so, a reflection of the subjects themselves.
Curtis employed a number of aesthetic devices to convey the power, presence, and intensity of the people he encountered. As noted, the majority of his portraits are relatively closely cropped and show the subject in a carefully controlled aesthetic environment. This was generally created in the field within a large tent, using a dark backdrop and natural lighting. Curtis' portrait tent was equipped with louvers that could be adjusted to control the quantity and quality of the natural light in which he bathed his sitters. Curtis was initially trained, and first received renown, as a studio portrait photographer, and it was here he learned to exploit the aesthetic and emotional possibilities inherent in lighting and composition. Thus, even a cursory perusal of the portraits reproduced in this book reveals a photographer who was clearly drawn to classical, symmetrical compositions, and who generally used dramatic, focused lighting and deep, uncluttered backgrounds to convey the depth, beauty, and power of his sitters. Many of us have become so familiar with Curtis' photographs that we forget how extraordinary and unlike anything else they are. With the possible exception of a small body of work by A.C. Vroman, no other photographer of the American Indian was able to consistently photograph his subjects in such an intimate and expressive way. The subjects were clearly active participants in the process with Curtis and their deep trust of the photographer and his project is reflected over and over again in the portraits. While Curtis was interested, as an ethnographer, in understanding human typologies, as an artist he was even more interested in conveying the depth and essence of the individuals he was photographing.
Curtis was greatly influenced by the Pictorialist movement in photography, an aesthetic propounded by a group of photographers whose goal was to distinguish their artistic endeavors from purely technical photographic pursuits. Curtis was not only an accomplished practitioner of Pictorialism, but also a noted theorist, contributing essays in Pictorialist aesthetics to scholarly and popular journals. The Pictorialists employed a wide variety of aesthetic devices to achieve their goals. Beyond the dramatic lighting and simplified and classical compositions discussed above, another important Pictorialist device was a softened focus, used to both minimize the purely documentary tendency of photography and to emphasize the emotional qualities of the subject matter. In addition to the softened focus, dramatic lighting, and classical composition that Curtis employed to convey his message, his nearly universal use of sepia toning was another significant aesthetic element. Clearly, the emotional quality of the rich sepia was in keeping with traditional Native American life (and what that life connotes to many contemporary viewers). When one views the rare, untoned photograph by Curtis, the vastly different, and diminished, emotional impact is immediately apparent. In summary, Curtis' portraits of Native Americans are easily distinguished from those of any other photographer by their great intimacy, the emotional openness of the sitter, and a coherent aesthetic that put great emphasis on careful lighting; classic, simplified compositions; a warm, sepia tonality; and, frequently, softened focus.
Excerpted from Edward S. Curtis: The Great Warriors , by Christopher Cardozo . Copyright (c) 2004 by Verve Editions and Christopher Cardozo, Inc.. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top