Book Review: The Many Faces of Edward Curtis

[I write the occasional book review and it occurs to me that I should post those reviews here. This is the first. My current research is on Indians and early photography in the Pacific Northwest so this book was a natural for me to review. This review appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Montana: The Magazine of Western History.]

Celebrating the Shadowfaker

Steadman Upham and Nat Zappia, The Many Faces of Edward Curtis (Tulsa: The Gilcrease Museum, 2006) 158 pages.

When it comes to Indian photographer Edward Curtis, there are two types of books. First are the lavish coffee table books of his photographs, half-a-dozen new ones every year, featuring handsome reproductions of his artful images framed by the fawning text of the latest editor. The Curtis who emerges from these books is the same public image that he created for himself a hundred years ago—the swashbuckling ethnographic explorer and artistic genius who the awestruck natives supposedly dubbed “Shadowcatcher.” Such volumes are thin on scholarship but sell like hotcakes—there is a groaning table of them for sale at your local Borders bookstore right now.

The second category of Curtis books are the scholarly ones. Fewer in number, these are often critical of Curtis, who did after all stage, crop, fake and alter many of his iconic images to produce the Indians he wanted. The Curtis of the scholars is more showman than scientist, his choreographed portraits were never about ethnography but rather were designed to reinforce the dominant American narrative of American Indians as noble but primitive and doomed by their inability to adapt. The best of the scholarly works (and I am thinking particularly of Mick Gidley’s Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated) are deeply researched, persuasive, and open up new ways of understanding Native American and popular culture in Curtis’ era. But the authors of such works should not quit their day jobs.

The Many Faces of Edward Sherriff Curtis begins promisingly. Upham and Zappia tell us in the introduction that collection began with the discovery of “several hundred” previously unknown Curtis images, acquired from Jim Graybill, a Curtis descendent. (11) Accompanying the photographs are Indian stories taken from Curtis’ field notes, “included to provide a context” for the photos. (13)

Unfortunately the remainder of the introduction is the usual hagiography of Curtis, “an individual driven by a powerful vision.” (15) Scholarly critics are casually dismissed. Worse than the introduction is the organizational principle used for the photographs, which are arranged by the ages of the subjects from youngest (an Apache baby in a cradleboard) to oldest (Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces). The authors state that this plan reveals “the unity and cohesion of Curtis’ subjects” though it is hard to determine what that means. The organization of the native tales is similarly slapdash, though we are told the sequence “emphasizes the progression of life experiences and the universality of certain Native American mythopoetic figures like coyote, frog, and badger.” (16-17)

The result is a confused mishmash that treats all Indians as interchangeable and notable largely for being picturesque. The Apache baby at the start of the sequence faces a page with an origin myth of the Hidatsa, and Chief Joseph stares mournfully across the spine at a tale from the Nunivak people of Alaska. The pictures and texts are divorced from any historical or cultural context. Nor are the materials here as new as indicated in the introduction. Quite a few of the pictures in this book are also found in Curtis’ published The North American Indian and some are quite familiar. Similarly, most or all of the reprinted stories, which the introduction implies were collected from Curtis’ field notes, are also found in Curtis’ published volumes.

The Many Faces of Edward Curtis faithfully reproduces Curtis’ own 19th century world view and ignores decades of scholarship on Curtis and the American Indians. One may anticipate brisk sales for the book.