Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian

December 12, 2009May 16, 2010

In 1900, Edward S. Curtis undertook the momentous task of documenting American Indian cultures across the United States. Over the next thirty years, he took over 40,000 photographs and collected information about more than eighty tribes, ranging from the Inuit people of the far north to the Hopi people of the Southwest. The Amon Carter Museum will display a selection of works from this compelling new acquisition.

Curtis assembled this material into twenty lavishly illustrated text volumes, each accompanied by a folio of approximately thirty-eight exquisitely printed, hand-pulled photogravures. Today, The North American Indian is widely heralded as a masterpiece of unparalleled scope and beauty, revered by many as among the key artistic and historical resources of the age.


The Curtis exhibit was well worth the drive from Dallas. I have never seen so many photographs of his in a single exhibition. I am always amazed how Curtis captured the character of these remarkable individuals. The photos were well displayed and the text was well written and not overburdened with moralistic academic interpretations, which can often be a detriment to an exhibit such as this one.

I've been a fan of Curtis for a long time but have never had a chance to view any of his photos "in person," in other words, I knew him only from books and reproductions. Seeing the actual photogravure prints is a major thrill. His photos have are breathtakingly beautiful and entirely of their era; he reminds me a little of his younger contemporary Steichen, although the worlds the two men worked in could hardly be more dissimilar. But the ethnographic dimension of Curtis's work gives his photos even greater depth and resonance. Some of the photogravure prints look at first more like original works of art (like etchings or more precisely aquatints) than like photos, until you start noticing just things like deliberately shallow depth of field which you don't see often in non-photographic images. I live in Dallas but the drive to Fort Worth was a small price to pay for a great exhibit like this - indeed, it was the only price, since entrance to the museum is free! I'll be coming back more than once before the exhibit ends in May. Bravo to the ACM.

By the way, no selection from many photographers can pack the punch of a large sampling of works by a single master like Curtis. Nevertheless, the roughly concurrent exhibit of photographs in popular American culture is outstanding as well - including a number of great photos by famous (Lange, Winogrand, Scavullo and others) and not-so-famous photographers. I went for the Curtis as my main course and enjoyed the American popular culture exhibit as a beautiful dessert.

This exhibit is truly amazing. Anyone with an interest in photography or history is strongly urged to check it out. I stared at these amazing images in awe.

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