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Exhibit juxtaposes contemporary Native photography with Edward Curtis' historic work


COURTESY: WENDY RED STAR - The photographic work of Native Americans by Portlands Wendy Red Star and Will Wilson, both featured in an upcoming Portland Art Museum exhibit, certainly contrasts with the early 20th century photos of Edward Curits.The work of photographer Edward S. Curtis, notably the production of the extensive books “The North American Indian” and the hundreds of photos that go with it, often is cited as the closest visual — and written — representation of the Old West Native Americans.

But critics say that the non-Native Curtis’ photos didn’t capture the whole picture of what was going on when he worked among the tribes on reservations in 1907 and beyond, and put out books until 1930.

So, we now have academics and artists reading into his work, and some of the

interpretation will be explained in the upcoming Portland Art Museum exhibit and programs, “Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy,” Feb. 13 to May 8.

In dialogue with Curtis’ work, Native photographers Wendy Red Star, Will Wilson and Zig Jackson also will show photographs and images, with their work serving as juxtaposition to the glorified stereotype content in Curtis’ photos and photogravures, as historians perceive it today.

Curtis, commissioned by financier and philanthropist J.P. Morgan, spent time documenting cultural practices, languages and traditions among some 80 tribes, which produced some 40,000 photographs, many in 20 word-and-photo volumes of “The North American Indian,” accompanied by 70 large-scale portfolios. He was asked to document the Native Americans as the “vanishing race” after years of the Natives doing battle with other tribes and the U.S. military, while seemingly ignoring — or having his photos ignore — the reality of them living in squalor on reservations, for example.

There also was the perception that Curtis, nicknamed the “Shadow Catcher,” photographically documented the Natives without sufficient reciprocity, a sign of disrespect.

Curtis had writers and other staffers working with him on the books, but it’s his photos that have stood over time as misrepresentation, perhaps, of the American Indian.

“He didn’t have to make it so romantic,” says Julia Dolan, the Portland Art Museum photography curator. “They’re beautiful, meaningful and important photos, but they’re complicated.

EDWARD CURTIS LEGACY  - Modern photos of Native Americans contrast with the early 20th century photos of Edward Curits (Black Eagle, Nez Pearce, 1911).“Curtis was good about indicating individual issues, but in time the most romantic, poetic and historical photos have risen to the top. People don’t have time to look through 2,200 photos of North American Indians, so you get an incomplete vision.”

For the exhibit, the museum will display 10 percent of his photographs, Dolan says, but all of Curtis’ images will be available online (pam.org).

The Portland Art Museum owns a full set of the Curtis books; there were 222 full sets of “The North American Indian” created. Henrietta E. Failing, whose father founded the museum, bought a subscription — set No. 55 — and collected them between publication dates of 1907 and 1930.

“It’s in great shape,” Dolan says. “They’re hard to come by now, they don’t come to market often.”

A New York Times bestselling book, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” by Timothy Egan, might be the definitive biography of Curtis’ life. There has been plenty of debate about Curtis in the Native communities.

One of Jackson’s photos is termed “Indian photographing tourist photographing Indian,” which touches on Jackson’s overarching theme of who takes what photo can mean separate things.

Wilson uses an 8-by-10-inch camera, similar to Curtis’, and tintypes for “The Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange,” an explicit counter to Curtis’ work. Wilson uses the concept of reciprocity, getting permission from subjects (“sitters”), then scans the photos on tintypes and gives the original to the sitter, who feels gifted. Wilson has made huge prints for display.

Jackson, also known as “Rising Buffalo,” will have about 25 photos displayed during the exhibit, and there’ll be about 12 of Wilson’s more large-scale prints. With Red Star’s work, the exhibit will feature more than 100 photos and images.

Red Star has documented the life and families in her own Crow tribe from Montana, where she grew up.

“It all comes natural,” she says. “The difference from Edward Curtis is that he was so focused on capturing the authentic Indian that it made them unauthentic, because he didn’t photograph them in their time.

“In 1908, they had cars and western clothing,” and men weren’t wearing headdresses (usually reserved for highly respected males) and preparing for battle.

The multimedia artist merges the past with the current — purposeful cultural clashes. “We have a Crow Festival the third week of August, and there’ll be kids riding horses, and they’ll be texting while riding,” Red Star says. “I have a photo with my daughter and I in traditional outfits, but it’s photographed in the living room on an Ikea couch ...

“To Edward Curtis and what he did, he’d like to freeze us back in time in outfits, but there were other things happening in the photo.”

Red Star, who has lived in Portland for eight years, will be manipulating a 1907 government map that showed the Crow reservation and plots of land, highlighting names of residing ancestral people she has come to know alongside their submitted photos and Curtis photos. It’s 16 feet tall, massive, and “stunning to see,” Dolan says.

“She’s expanded this complex time period,” she adds.

Red Star also has taken duplicated Curtis images and removed the men from them, as a statement about viewing the photos and realizing the people and life outside of the men in the tribe.

“So much has been placed on their faces and regalia, when you remove them, they’re these silhouetted spaces, matted and framed the same,” Dolan says. “It’s a wonderful parallel when the person is removed. She’s emphasizing women by taking out men, but also what’s left when they are pulled away.”

Adds Red Star: “I just want to give these photos a rest.”

It raises the question, in the face of history telling the different story of Curtis photos: How much meaning can be found in a portrait?

“When I was asked to do this show, I didn’t want to focus on his body of work,” Red Star says, “but his research and work with the Crow people — Crow men, particularly warriors or chiefs. The show has three male photographers with Edward, and it was important to bring a female perspective.”