Portrait of a Photographer: Edward Curtis Comes to Canada

BOOK REVIEW: Edward S. Curtis: Above the Medicine Line, Portraits of Aboriginal Life in the Canadian West – Rodger D. Touchie, Heritage House Publishing, 2010, 191 pgs.

The first time I heard the name Edward S. Curtis was in a library.  Somehow in a book somewhere I read he was a great American photographer fixated with images of Indians.  Old chiefs.  Notable native historical figures and their contemporaries. 

His powerful imagery sparked my imagination again recently when I was having breakfast at a restaurant in Toronto called Edward Levesque’s Kitchen.    The walls there are decorated with magnificent sepia toned portraits from the Curtis catalogue.   Craggy Cherokee faces.  The chiselled cheeks of the Hopi.  The  famous and the much less so.  They are remarkable photographs.  The subjects appear to look back at the camera as though the lens itself is a person, not a piece of glass.

So when I saw a book called “Edward S. Curtis: Above the Medicine Line, Portraits of Aboriginal Life in the Canadian West“, I opened it looking for remarkable photographs and some greater understanding of who this man was and who the people he photographed were.    It has the photographs.  From Piegan chief  White Buffalo-Calf, 1899, to Nez Perce chief Joseph and his nephew Red Thunder in 1903, to Geronimo, 1905, to Nakoaktuk chief Hakalahl, early on at the turn of the 20th century, to the cover portrait of Bear Bull, a Blackfoot warrior from 1926.

I learned this:  Curtis the photographer was also a film-maker and documentarist.  He lived among various tribal people for the express purpose of documenting their way of life, believing it and they were vanishing.   The defeat of Custer didn’t change what was happening.  People were being corralled in reserves.  Resisters were starved into submission.

Against this backdrop, Curtis set about putting together a 20-volume collection of photos and observations on native life west of the Mississippi.  What I didn’t know was that some of the people he documented came from north of the 49th, (the border being known as The Medicine Line to some travelling bands in the Prairies), in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan.  His journey out of the United States – and the photographs he took here –  are what this book is all about.

Curtis’ subjects appear tragically sorrowful in this book.  And it’s not just because they’re living hard and being squeezed off the land or slain by white settlers.  An anecdote from  one reviewer reveals Curtis wasn’t very happy when his photographed subjects laughed among themselves.  He regarded his work with great seriousness and insisted his subjects reflect that.

Besides portraits, there are also ritual ceremonies captured here.  Some of them staged.  (Curtis was regarded with disdain for his intentional reconstruction of events he’d missed by a season, or by happenstance.  He cheated the photos in some cases through re-enactment or retouching certain elements.) And while he was allowed inside many hidden rituals,  it is not trust you see  in the faces of these portraits.  It is the gaze of inevitability.  It is acknowledgement and recognition of the unstoppable change and dislocation thrust upon the people.  What it does not and cannot show is that change did not extinguish the people.

Curtis’ work is now widely respected historically and anthropologically.  In some cases, native people are using it to replicate the authenticity of rituals in different communities.  He recorded songs and languages, safeguarding them from extinction.  But by virtue of the very fact he wanted his photos not to represent such and such an individual but rather the “typical” appearance of a particular tribe before they were lost for all time, the individual  in the photograph  is largely lost to the reader. 

This book’s author, Rodger Touchie,  is the man who runs Heritage House,  the publishing company that brought it to existence.  Touchie is an Ontario-born writer who’s spent more time in B-C than in Ontario and who now calls Vancouver Island his home.   The way I read it, he admires both Curtis the man and Curtis the photographer.  Looking at his body of work, Touchie seems to be a western historian of sorts.  He is also, more curiously, an MBA graduate and author of a book on business planning.  

That may be why in some sense, the book seems to be at heart, a story about Curtis’ effort to make his photographic exploits a business, rather than a story about Curtis’ interest in native lives, or his embrace of the idea that change for native people – unlike non-native people – is the equivalent of death.

5 thoughts on “Portrait of a Photographer: Edward Curtis Comes to Canada

  1. I stumbled across the “Shadow Catcher”, as Curtis was called, in my high school library. It was a huge, thick book full of many of the photos you describe. I think it was the first time I’d seen anything about West Coast Haida or Tlingit since I was from the other end of the continent. I read more and discovered that Curtis’ task was to document as much as possible of the final days of these “dying” races. We were supposed to go the way fo the dodo bird. In fact, years later, my sister discovered she had an original Curtis print and had it appraised. The title? The Vanishing Race. It was a string of Navajo horsemen riding away from the camera and off into the desert in a cloud of dust. Great photography regardless the topic, the manipulation, the background. It’s an amazing look back at the way life was.

  2. It is no secret that much of Curtis’ works were in fact staged. If you look carefully you will see some of the same regalia shown on various tribes not in any way related. Likewise with the implements, etc. Curtis carried a ‘living museum’ of regalia and objects with him and used them to enhance the image  he was attempting to portray.

  3. I learned at least 30 yrs ago that Curtis carried all types of Indian regalia and appliances with him as he carried out his dream to document the dying people. You will find many of the same regalia and implements in photos of different tribes.

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