Date of Award
Master of Arts
John Warne Monroe
In the early years of the twentieth century, American photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) set out to complete an ambitious project documenting traditional American Indian life and customs still practiced among tribes living west of the Mississippi River. Strong influences emanating from Curtis’s involvement in pictorial fine art and commercial photography, as well as the developing field of American anthropology and early ethnographic writing, tempered his early work. Curtis was exposed to the developing notion of the “vanishing race” of indigenous peoples, and he joined in the overwhelming response by American ethnographers and anthropologists to salvage any cultural information that lingered.
The results of his endeavors were published between 1907 and 1930 in a massive, twenty volume publication titled The North American Indian. The project itself is comprised of over five thousand pages of narrative text (mostly written by Curtis’s primary assistant and fieldworker William E. Myers) and illustrated with over two thousand photogravure images by Curtis, printed on the finest papers and bound in leather. The project has often been overlooked by scholars as an early-twentieth century salvage ethnography accompanied by pictorial photography; one that distances and others its indigenous subjects through posed and heavily manipulated imagery. Augmenting the current methodological shift away from these early readings, the current study focuses on materials that unveil elements of indigenous collaboration and insights into Curtis’s unique theatrical constructions of his imagery.
The twelfth volume, published in 1922 and dedicated to the Hopi people—one of only two volumes featuring materials from a single tribe—is the primary focus of the study. A close reading of select imagery and text from the volume unveils new evidence of indigenous presence and participation in shared record-making. The crisis environment present on the Hopi reservation during Curtis and Myers’ fieldwork underlies readings of cultural survival in several Hopi portraits, and appears in the text of the volume; both often operating beyond cultural salvage and with a progressive, coeval, and sometimes activist voice.
Heather Lin Skeens
Skeens, Heather Lin, "Pictures, not merely photographs: authenticity, performance and the Hopi in Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian" (2016). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 15203.