I recently worked on a project for the University of Minnesota Libraries documenting a reception and lecture for the exhibition Such a Big Dream: Edward S Curtis at 150, which marks the 150-year anniversary of photographer Edward S. Curtis’ birth.
My opinion of Curtis’ work has vacillated over the years, at first feeling his pictures presented a one-dimensional and romanticized portrayal of a marginalized ethnic group. After learning more about the political and social climate during which he made his encyclopedic work The North American Indian, as well as his personal commitment to the project and his work with tribes in the Pacific Northwest, I have arrived at a more nuanced view of his oeuvre.
While taking pictures at the reception, I spoke with a Native American guest – perhaps the only one in attendance – about his perspective on the exhibition. He replied that he felt the pictures fed into so many tropes about the noble Indian and served to reinforce stereotypes constructed by European Americans. Even so, his friend’s grandfather had been photographed by Curtis and he was there to view the picture in person.
I felt relieved to not be the only one there experiencing the duality of the work.
Such a Big Dream: Edward S Curtis at 150 is on view at the Elmer L. Andersen Library, University of Minnesota Twin Cities Campus, through January 8, 2019.
If you desire to read more on the provocative subject of Curtis’ work, online art and culture newsletter Hyperallergic published an essay on a (separate) comprehensive exhibition of Curtis’ work here.