Curtis in Arizona

Exhibition provides refreshing Native American perspective on controversial Indian images

Annabel Wong has long been an admirer of one of Edward S. Curtis' famous Indian pictures.

"I grew up looking at this photo," Wong wrote about "Qahátka Girl, 1907," a work in the Curtis Reframed exhibition at the Arizona State Museum. "This is my favorite."

And no wonder. The picture is a riveting portrait. Draped in a dark blanket, the young girl gazes out at the viewer, her dark eyes curious about what she's seeing. Now long dead, she seems to be looking out at us from the past: She's an individual who's become an archetype.

But here's what's interesting: Wong, the person who loves the picture, is an Indian, a member of Arizona's Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. And Curtis, a white man born in 1868, has been vilified for the way he represented Indians in his work.

Curtis made an astonishing 40,0000 photos of Native Americans over a period of 30 years, and created the monumental 20-volume work The North American Indian. He gave most of his life to documenting all the tribes west of the Mississippi, in what this show's curators call the "single largest ethnographic and photography project ever undertaken."

Like most white Americans of his day, he believed that Native Americans were a "vanishing race," and he pictured them romantically, in gauzy focus, as a people divorced from the contemporary world and on their way to oblivion. He's been accused of manipulating his subjects and of staging his pictures to conform to his own vision and, in short, of failing to conform to today's standards of ethical ethnography.

Yet to Wong, judging by her remarks, Curtis' exquisitely rendered records of her elders are a treasure. Leilani Clark, a Diné (Navajo), has some reservations about Curtis, but she agrees that his pictures are "very beautiful ... portraits of Native people from the past that we are able to have a record of today."

What a pleasure it is to get the perspective of tribal members. This Curtis exhibition has found room for the voices of Native Americans, and that's an innovation that's a treasure in itself. Wong, Clark and Reuben Naranjo, a Tohono O'odham/Yaqui scholar and artist who is more critical of Curtis' methodology, were invited to write down their views of several of the pictures in Curtis Reframed. Their printed thoughts, hanging below the images, have become part of the exhibition.

What's more, the guest curator is Aleta Ringlero, a doctoral candidate in art history at the UA, and, like Wong, a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Community. She and museum staff curator Jannelle Weakly forthrightly deliver their own views of the Curtis controversy in the exhibition's wall text. Writing in a single curatorial voice, the pair charge Curtis critics of "ignoring historical context." In fact, American Indians had indeed "vanished"—by the millions—after European contact. Curtis' detractors "fail to acknowledge the precipitous drop in Native populations," the curators write. What's more, they note, the traditional cultures of American Indians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were under assault by the "U.S.-imposed reservation system and the pressure on individuals and communities to assimilate."

Curtis wasn't entirely wrong.

Drawn from the museum's own holdings, the exhibition showcases 20 of his photogravures—hand-pulled sepia-inked prints derived from his glass-plate negatives. Part of the fun of the show is that all the images are from Arizona. Curtis made repeated trips here and photographed 13 different tribes, including the Tohono O'odham, Pima and Apache.

In this first wave, the curators have concentrated on portraits, for which Curtis was especially known. This fine sampling includes a rare smiling woman, in "Wavacháchi - Maricopa, 1907," as well as a spikey-haired man, in "Chijaki - Pima, 1907." He looks eerily contemporary, and very much alive. Also included are a number of less well-known images of figures in the landscape. These beguiling pictures depict people performing traditional desert rituals and everyday tasks.

Wong singles out one of these, "Saguaro Fruit Gatherers, Maricopa, 1907" as "perfect." It's a beauty. In it, three women stand to the left of a giant saguaro. Soft pale mountains rise up in the distance and the sky is faintly gold.

Wong is the most enthusiastic of the three enlisted Indian critics; besides "perfect," she uses the adjectives "exquisite" and "wonderful." The other two are not so unabashed in their praise.

Naranjo concentrates on finding factual errors in pictures and titles, drawing on his own knowledge of Tohono O'odham culture. He turns a critical eye on "Gathering Hanamh—Papago, 1907." This one pictures one of Naranjo's tribal forebears ("Papago" is the former named given to Tohono O'odham) standing by a cholla plant. She's holding a basket, and she's reaching to pick the fruit.

He doesn't quite believe that she's really harvesting the fruit. He suspects Curtis staged the picture: The plant has already flowered, he says, and the fruit is "usually harvested" before the plant flowers.

And he takes exception to the woman's clothing. She's wearing a dressy white blouse and skirt, and a fancy necklace around her neck. "Look at her clothes," Naranjo writes. "Those aren't work clothes."

Wong, attuned as usual to the physical beauty of the work, writes instead that the woman's features, attractively lit, are "exquisite." And, she adds, "it's nice to see the basket in use," to see an elder using a basket that would today be found only on a museum's shelves.

I defer to Naranjo on the cholla's cycles, but I'm not so sure about the clothing critique. We don't really know what kind of transaction took place between photographer and subject that hot day 106 years ago. Curtis may well have asked the woman to wear her Sunday best for aesthetic or romantic reasons. The white makes a lovely contrast to the dark plant, and the woman looks fetching in it. But as other photographers have noted, including Native photographers themselves, most photographic subjects, Indians included, like to present their best selves to the camera. Could it have been the woman herself who insisted on her prettiest dress and her best necklace?

But the Curtis debates are endlessly interesting. No matter what your perspective on Curtis' practices, his pictures remain poignant and melancholy. They're a record of a world now lost to modernism. Clark, the Diné woman, wrote that for that reason alone they're valuable. But she's ambivalent.

"They come from a perspective that we were a dying breed," she writes, "that we had to be documented by white men, like some sort of ancient history exhibit."

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