In 1906, Seattle photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis was commissioned by financial tycoon J.P. Morgan to photograph the indigenous American tribes, in an effort to capture images of their customs and traditions. So began the North American Indian Project, in which Curtis was given five years to complete a visual record, in folio form, of people who were widely considered to be vanishing.
Curtis' photos of Native American men, women and children are monumental in their expressive detail and sensitivity. His artistic eye lingers in portraits of elderly subjects, their faces beset by wrinkles, or in the soulful, steady gaze of a child.
"There's an undeniable humanity implicit in them," says Blake Milteer, the FAC's museum director and curator of American art.
Twenty-two such images will be on display at the museum starting next week. The photogravures (photographs reproduced through etchings) depict mostly Plains nations, and hail from volumes 1, 18 and 19 of the 20-volume series. They belong to local photographer and collector Barbara Sparks.
Beautiful as they are, controversy envelops each. Curtis, though a gifted artist, failed in his charge to compile an anthropological record. He often posed his subjects, and edited the pictures to better fit his themes.
"He had no qualms about dressing [subjects] up in attire that he brought along with him, essentially putting them in studio situations right there in their communities," says Milteer. "So it's a fairly artificial document, as it were. Perhaps not a document at all."
Milteer says that today we feel disdain for a manipulated image, but manipulation wasn't a big concern in Curtis' time — even though photographs were considered to be records of pure truth. And the reality is that Curtis had an overwhelming amount of ground to cover. He finished the North American Indian Project in 1930, more than 20 years after its original completion date. By that time, the topic was no longer interesting to the public, and fewer than 300 copies were sold. Both the project and Curtis faded into obscurity.
His work started receiving appreciation when it was rediscovered in the 1970s. Before long, Curtis' photos were regarded as some of the finest visual records of Native Americans around the turn of the 20th century, though they remain locked in a precarious balance between art and a manufactured truth.