Shamoon Zamir's new book, The Gift of the Face: Portraiture and Time in Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian, offers a reconsideration of the most influential photographic record of the Native Americans of the United States. Curtis dedicated himself to the project for 25 years, during which time he took more than 40,000 photographs — just less than 2,500 of these were published and almost half of them are portraits.
The North American Indian, published between 1907 and 1930, was a collaborative effort that brought together Curtis, academic and photographic assistants, editors, printers, and Native American translators, guides, and cultural brokers.
The project took an enormous amount of time, resources, and labor to produce. For the photographic reproductions, Curtis chose photogravure, the best and most expensive process for reproducing a photograph. Partially funded by the industrialist JP Morgan, and with a foreword by US President Theodore Roosevelt, the book's team's combined labor resulted in 20 volumes of images and ethnographies and 20 photographic portfolios; a complete set was priced at around USD 3,000 in 1930 (worth approximately USD 41,800 today).
Zamir's study, however, eschews comprehensiveness for in-depth analysis of a handful of Curtis' images: "Each of the eight chapters takes one image, and spins out from it a complicated argument about a particular aspect of the work," said Zamir, who is associate dean of Arts and Humanities and associate professor of Literature and Visual Studies at NYU Abu Dhabi.
At the heart of Zamir's reading of Curtis is the argument that the photographs are more than mere illustrations for the anthropological text; they do not simply accompany the text, but must be seen as "argument making pictures" claiming an equality with the text. The pursuit of this argument allows Zamir to re-assess the place of Curtis both within the histories of American photography and also of early visual anthropology.
While many previous commentators have criticized Curtis for romanticizing the Native Americans and erasing all evidence of historical violence from his images, Zamir proposes that there is often a complex engagement with history and time in the work of Curtis. Where these commentators have argued that Curtis manipulated his subjects, Zamir demonstrates that there is strong evidence to suggest that the project is the result of a more consensual collaboration.
Some of the Native Americans that Curtis photographed were extremely powerful men: Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and Plenty Coups, one of the great Crow leaders of the early 20th century.
"Plenty Coups went to the White House four times to negotiate treaties with the president of the United States. The idea that Curtis was somehow manipulating these people seems to me absurd," Zamir said. "So, if Plenty Coups or Geronimo are dressed up in traditional regalia, it's because they had a reason for working with Curtis."
Complicating the narratives of cross-cultural encounter seems imperative to me.
There is also "a visual archive of evidence" that supports Native American collaboration in the portraits. And this type of evidence has not been considered by previous critics. "I can honestly say that there are very few portraits that you would say are awkward. There's no way you look relaxed in front of the camera unless you are relaxed in front of the camera. This may seem very tangential, and perhaps no scientist would accept this argument," he acknowledged. "But if you work in the arts, evidence like this is as important as anything else."
In one chapter, Zamir employs historical research that complicates the narrative of Alexander B Upshaw, Curtis' Crow informant who also sat for a portrait.
Upshaw was educated in the assimilationist Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In his younger years, he rejected Native American culture and urged his classmates to do the same: "Unless we break away from our tribal relations and go out into the world as men and women, we will remain Indians and perish as Indians." (He even wrote a letter to the school newspaper denying that he had donned traditional dress for a portrait taken in Omaha, Nebraska).
Yet, a few years later, Upshaw posed barechested, wearing a headdress for Curtis' book.
"So the critics say, 'Look what Curtis did to Upshaw!' And the real question for me is: 'Why did Upshaw decide to sit for the portrait?,'" said Zamir, who believes that Curtis could have never manipulated Upshaw in ways that critics have argued.
"One of the conjectures that I make, using evidence I've found about Upshaw's life, is that this was actually part of a radicalization moment on the Crow reservation, and young, educated Crows, like Upshaw, were being pushed to the forefront in terms of negotiations" with the US government.
With this kind of work, "you open up new lines of inquiry where the old lines of inquiry seem to be problematic, and I'm hoping that someone else takes up the next phase of this research," Zamir said. "There may be documents out there somewhere that I and other Curtis scholars haven't found. Complicating the narratives of cross-cultural encounter seems imperative to me."
The Gift of the Face: Portraiture and Time in Edward S. Curtis’s The North American Indian, published by University of North Carolina Press, is now available.
This article originally appeared in NYUAD's 2013-14 Research Report (13MB PDF).