Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) was a 19th-century Western pioneer and entrepreneur, known for his photography, ethnography, writing, filmmaking, and even gold-prospecting and patents. His story is filled with courage, character and determination, and an understanding that life is more than survival. From the 1890s on, Curtis took thousands of photographs of Indigenous people across the American West and produced his monumental work The North American Indian (1907-1930), a 20-volume publication illustrated with photographs and text. Curtis’s project became the largest anthropological enterprise ever undertaken in the U.S. and was supported by Theodore Roosevelt and funded in part by John Pierpont Morgan.
“Light and Legacy: The Art and Techniques of Edward S. Curtis” offers Scottsdale’s Museum of the West’s guests an opportunity to view the breadth and depth of Curtis’s work, artistry, photographic techniques and lifetime achievements. Featuring iconic and rarely seen images, this exhibition includes the 20 volumes of The North American Indian, original photogravures and copper plates, rare goldtones or Curt-Tones, platinum prints, silver gelatins, cyanotypes, glass-plate negatives and ephemera. Visitors will hear recordings selected from thousands that Curtis and his field team made as part of the ethnological data for The North American Indian project.
Curtis’s multifaceted contributions to the Western canon were declared important by his contemporaries, while today he is often viewed as a Renaissance man, having also contributed to the art and science of photography. His ability to adapt and persevere when faced with changing and difficult environments has long been appreciated. We hope the essence of Curtis’s gift as a maker of images will be more fully revealed, and that this exhibition offers a deep and rich understanding of his accomplishments as an artist, while paying homage to the crucial role of Native American participants in actualizing this iconic body of work.
“Light and Legacy,” featured in the Halle Foundation Great Hall and the Pulliam Fine Arts Gallery, opens to the public on October 19, 2021. The Curtis exhibition is sponsored by the Peterson Family; Charles F., Jennifer E., and John U. Sands; Scottsdale Art Auction; and the City of Scottsdale and its Tourism Development Commission. —Tricia Loscher
APACHE AND NAVAJO
Edward Curtis commenced his ambitious project among the Apache, Jicarilla, and Navajo people. Some of his most celebrated and reproduced images come from this first volume, Cañon de Chelly– Navaho and The Vanishing Race–Navaho, the first image in the series, among them. Still, another image, later in the portfolio, Out of the Darkness–Navaho, is almost a film clip of Vanishing Race run in reverse. Curtis connected Navajos and Apaches through common aspects of their languages and contradicted the prevailing view of Apaches as primitive and warlike. Instead, his imagery and text paint these people as infinitely resourceful, fiercely loyal, devoutly religious, artistic storytellers. In photographs such as Apache Medicine Man, Curtis’s painterly understanding of light, combined with his darkroom skill, sculpts the figure out of the surrounding darkness, suggesting the longevity and sacredness of the medicine man’s ritual with finely drawn subtlety. —Portfolio essays by James D. Balestrieri
Out of the Darkness (Navajo)
Volume 1, Portfolio plate 37 (1904)
Courtesy NYPL Digital Collections
Son of the Desert–Navajo
Volume 1, Portfolio plate 32 (1904)
Silver Photograph Courtesy The Tim Peterson Family Collection
Eskadi–Apache Volume 1, Portfolio plate 16 (1903)
Son of the Desert–NavajoCourtesy Library of Congress (1904)
Haschogan–Navajo Volume 1, Facing page 94 (1904)
Vash–Gon–Jicarilla Volume 1, Portfolio 1 plate 20 (1904)
Photographs of ceremonies lead us to the recordings of songs, the lists of words, the stories set down—aspects of Curtis’s work that are not summed up in the images you see here but are nevertheless crucial to understanding the scope of his endeavor. “Light and Legacy: The Art and Techniques of Edward S. Curtis” at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West is one of the first exhibitions to combine Curtis’s visual artistry with recordings of his actual documentation of Indigenous languages. Curtis spent a great deal of time living among the peoples you see here, earning their trust. As he wrote in a letter late in his life, he tried to work “with Indians,” not “at them,” as he felt other anthropologists and ethnographers did.
Buffalo Dance at Hano Volume 12, Facing page 178 (1904) Courtesy Library of Congress
Arikara medicine ceremony: The bears Volume 5, Facing page 74 (1908)
An Incident of the Winter Dance–Nakoaktok Volume 10, Facing page 210 (1914)
Prayer to the Mystery (Sioux) Volume 3, Portfolio plate 91 (1907)
Hefatyu Society–Cheyenne Sun Dance Volume 19, Facing page 114 (1927)
Sun Dance in Progress–Cheyenne Volume 6, Facing page 128 (1910)
The Altar–Arikara Volume 5, Facing page 68 (1908)
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