Mingled Visions: The Photographs of Edward S. Curtis and Will Wilson
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This spring, The Westmoreland features two exhibitions that explore the role of artists in creating and reinforcing stereotypes of Native Americans.
Mingled Visions: The Photographs of Edward S. Curtis and Will Wilson, pairs two photographers who share a vision to produce a permanent record of Native peoples. Edward S. Curtis (1868–1952), a European American, made it his life’s mission to create “a comprehensive record of all the important tribes in the United States and Alaska who still retained a considerable degree of their customs and traditions.” He accomplished this through years of arduous fieldwork, at great personal cost and hardship, with the publication of The North American Indian. This ambitious project, conducted from 1907 to 1930, resulted in 20 volumes of text and 723 photogravure prints that document over 80 tribes the photographer interacted with over the course of 32 years.
As evidenced in his extensive descriptions in each volume, Curtis closely studied customs, legends, folklore, traditions, music, home life, belief systems, and sacred ceremonies. He recorded them in pictures and sound, making between 40,000 and 50,000 photographs and 10,000 wax recordings, as well as film in the field, so that North American Indian culture would be preserved for the future. He felt an urgency to do this, because by the time that he began his project, all of the tribes that he photographed had already been forcibly removed from their land and were living on reservations. He feared that they were destined to be assimilated into European American culture and truly believed he was documenting a “vanishing race.”
Complicating Curtis’ documentary project was, of course, his outsider’s gaze. Through such editorial choices as how he posed the sitters and staged the shots, the props and (sometimes inaccurate) clothing he included, and the specific people and scenes he captured, Curtis imposed his own, European American perspective of how Native Americans should be seen, not as they were in reality. The title “vanishing race” also signals a static culture, where Native Americans are fixed in the past. This is directly challenged by Will Wilson, a Diné photographer, who initiated the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX) in 2012.