Slightly extended summer light and weekends offer a chance to meander up the Lake Michigan coast, with an eye out for funky little places like Muskegon, an old industrial port town on the transition. Just when you might think Chicago’s two-hour ride is the only hub for high cultural excursions, the Art Coast surprises you, in the form of a summer showing of Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian. The Muskegon Museum of Art displays 723 portfolio photographs of more than eighty North American tribes through September, a comprehensive critical exploration of the early-1900s photographers work and celebrated 30-year study of Native American life. We’ve sat with Ed Sheriff Curtis previously, in an earlier article with an automatic focus on his picture of a Kutenai first nations reed harvester, appearing over the stone hearth of my brother’s northern Michigan homestead in the Winter ‘16. (1916 - or so it appeared). With an early openness to Native thought and culture, Curtis’s determined quest to capture a “vanishing race” significantly influenced how 20th century Americans viewed Indians.
As stated, before being dubbed Shadow Catcher by the tribal people of America, Edward Sheriff Curtis was born the son of an impoverished itinerant preacher and farm wife in 1868 near White Water, Wisconsin. In Minnesota, he completed only six years of formal schooling. Later moving out West, Curtis became an adventure and outdoorsman, artist and mountaineer, auspiciously rescuing a group of lost climbers that included George Bird Grinnell, chief of the US Biological Survey and founder of the Audubon Society, in 1898. Grinnell, who had fostered deep ties to Northwest Montana’s surviving High plains Native tribes, was given the name “Bird” by the Pawnee, who witnessed the Yale professor’s arrival each spring and departure with the coming winter. In the summer of 1900, Bird invited Curtis to an area that is today the Eastern edge of Glacier National Park, then traveling 20 miles by horseback to photograph a Piegan Sun Dance Ceremony. The experience deeply and indelibly moved the man, setting Curtis’ life compass on its magnetic mission: to document and photograph all aspects of Native life among surviving Indian tribes west of the Missouri River.
Curtis’ perceptive eye and beautifully achieved pictorialist aesthetic preserved and continue to reveal an acute and human sensitivity to the spirit and culture of Native American people. Yet, not all artists, art historians and anthropologists – Native and non-Native alike – are completely comfortable with some or all of its aesthetic and intellectual content. Curtis’ portraiture, some argue, reinforces “a reductive image of Native American culture as primitive, innocent and worse.” He clearly staged many of his images, sometimes dressing his subjects in clothing he carried with him. In these staged, stilted and unnatural images, critics say Curtis sought to mold his subjects and their lives into preconceived notions of what was “real” and “authentic” in tribal culture, a culture uninfluenced up to that time by Anglo civilization.
The cool little museum does a nice job with the collection, exhibiting loose portfolio photogravures, along with extensive descriptions of tribal customs and values, clan structure, tools, hunting and farming practices, marriage and funeral customs and more. Experiencing first-hand the enormous depth and breadth of the artist’s vision also gave a rare glimpse into the remarkably rich, diverse cultures of more than eighty American Indigenous tribes, including the Apache, Hopi, Lakota and Navajo people, “Most of whom,” the show literature points out, “still survive today, despite a half millennia of ordeals and obstacles.” Given the good ol’ c-o-n-t-r-o-v-e-r-s-y of Native America, the presentation didn’t shy away from confronting some of the flaws inherent in both Curtis’s images and studies, along with its widespread influence on our take on one of the great races of mankind. “He knows their Medicine Men and their Sorcerers,” extolls Theodore Roosevelt in the collection’s introduction,” their Chiefs and warriors, their young men and maidens. He not only knows their vigorous outward existence, but has caught glimpse, such as few white men ever catch, into that strange spiritual and mental life of theirs, from whose innermost resources all white men are forever barred.”
Attracting admirers and critics, the latter feel that many of Curtis’s images are essentially contrived – artificially composed to reinforce early 20th-century romantic notions of the “noble savage.” Sentimental images. Curtis said, “I resolved at an early period in my work with the Indians that my photographs must show the native without dress or artifact that betokened his contact with white civilization if possible.” His compositions are often telling. In many of his photographs the subjects are facing away from the viewer, or looking into the distance, as if he may have meant for us to feel they are gazing back into the past, thinking of returning. Many of his photographs make use of diffuse light and soft focus, an approach giving the images a sense of capturing a fleeting, evanescent moment in time.