Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Curtis Critique

Photo: Edward Curtis
Curtis has received considerable criticism from contemporary critics who object to the fact that he sometimes asked his subjects to dress in traditional clothing. He even had the audacity to retouch a clock out of a photograph! Seems he wasn't exactly being true to today's professional PJ standards- established several decades after the fact. So what on earth was he thinking!?

Curtis slowly came to the realization that traditional Indian life as practiced for centuries was coming to an end with the very generation at hand. After them, the centuries old tradition of Native American life would be forever broken. They would be the last to experience and actually live it in a personal, daily context. It was the foreign life and customs being forcibly imposed on them by Whites that were totally alien and disingenuous. In fact, had Curtis presented images of Indians in their then current state, as they were forced by Whites into a life of abject poverty and misery- those representations would have simply reinforced the prevailing attitude that Indians were lazy, slovenly beggars; regardless that they had been reduced into complete reliance and subserviance by the government for their food, livelihood and well being- and that none of those most basic of needs were sufficiently addressed in any humane or satisfactory manner whatsoever. Native Americans were legally prohibited from practicing their religion (in a country claiming freedom of religion as one of its founding principles), customs and traditions, including the potlatch- where notable families would give away their wordly possessions (smells like socialism!). They were not even allowed to speak in their native tongue! Did I mention that their White overseers also stole the overwhelmingly vast majority of their land?

Curtis was pretty emphatic in what he was trying to preserve in his photography- a way of life as practiced by those who would be the last to live it. His goal wasn't so much to idealize the American Indian, as to present them as a once independent people of a once independent culture. And he was most certainly not a working photojournalist bound by a code of ethics which had no relation to him or his work, and which for all practical purposes- did not even exist as of yet...

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