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Witnessing Resurgence: Portraits of Resilience

Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie

September 6 – December 14, 2018


The Shadow Catcher

Edward S. Curtis and the Making of The North American Indian

September 6 – December 14, 2018

Witnessing Resurgence: Portraits of Resilience
Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie

Many have written about portraiture and countless have contributed to the medium. I confess that I have a personal list of portrait artists, whom I visit to refresh inspiration, and then there are portraits made by “artists” who contribute inspiration based one of my favorite phrases, “Surely, one could do better.” My analysis of portraits takes into consideration the agency of time, materials, relationships, and of course political intent.

There are those who approach portraiture as a purely commercial venture, visiting the “primitive,” the “vanishing authentic,” documenting and publishing so that others may continue the gaze awhile seated in a comfortable chair, strangers encountering strangers, creating misplaced myths, and stereotypes. The following popular methodology continues to this day – the first step, validating cultural cannibalism as being a harmless voyeuristic activity, as an honorable capital venture. The second step, considering the heart of the portrait a seductive collectible; and the third and final step, to create a marketable recipe, a western au jus, spiced for the palette of mediocrity, that is easily digested and regurgitated for the next generation. “Surely one could do better.” This brings to mind a 1971 song, by Carly Simon, “You’re so Vain,” in which Simon sings, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” I am not speaking about Edward S. Curtis, I am speaking to the efforts of Jimmy Nelson’s coffee table portraits, “Before They Pass Away,” and Sam Durant’s macabre gallows sculpture “Scaffold.” Two unfortunate contemporary examples of cultural cannibalistic ventures.

On the other hand, there are those who approach portraiture as matters of the heart, where the portrait created evokes more than a visual memory. The portrait causes one to consider the alignment of the stars, the direction of the wind, and the intensity of relationships. An image that delves below the surface of the medium, so much so, that one looks behind the portrait to see if there is more. When compassion directs the portrait, the possibility of becoming sacred is high and the response is that of deep emotional appreciation. For this paragraph, I choose the song “Mother” by Ulali, and this song is about you, Nadya Kwandibens, Natalie Robertson, and Shelley Niro, whose portraiture of people and land, I consider, exceptional. There are many on this list but for this writing, this is my selection.

What does portraiture mean to me? In considering this question I recall my first photographic influences, which arrived in the form of magazines, “LIFE,” “LOOK,” and the obligatory, “National Geographic.” The provocative images of wars, civil rights, and the middle class printed in large halftone images were an introduction to the world and the power of photography. As a teenager in 1971, growing up in the belly button of Navajo Land, I would meet a French photographer who would influence my work, Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered a humanist photographer, who was visiting Rough Rock, AZ. I had no idea who he was. I was told he was “famous,” and that he shot from the hip, and usually used a 50mm lens. After the brief but influential encounter, I searched for his images and a 1952 book, originally titled, ”Images a la sauvette “ (the English version, “The Decisive Moment,”) at the Chinle High School library but instead found, Ernest Cole’s 1967, “House of Bondage,” which was even more impactful. Through Cole’s images, I had a template to compare the South African apartheid to that of the Reservation Border town apartheid (which is still prevalent to this day.) Thus, my photographic moral compass was set, by two outsiders, whose humanistic photographic techniques, I would apply to an overtly Indigenous political perspective.

In the early 70’s, Native American photographers were scarce and valued. So, when I decided to pick up the camera, it was not out of commercial opportunity, but based on passion, a passion to document, to portray family, community, and Nation. Creating portraits of compassion for my community is crucial to counteract the negative deductions of people like Smith and Durant. Creating portraits for my community is creating a moral compass for generations to consider. For me, portraits are a visual witnessing of the indomitable resurgence of Indigenous presence, an acknowledgment of resilience.

-H. J. Tsinhnahjinnie, 2018

I dedicate this exhibition to my wife Veronica Passalacqua and my son Amari Passalacqua, whose love and support sustain my creativity.

The Shadow Catcher: Edward S. Curtis and the Making of The Indians of North America (1907–1930)

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of the noted photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868–1952), the Sacramento State University’s Library Gallery in conjunction with California State Library is hosting an exhibit of his iconic images of Native Americans. His photographic masterpiece, The Indians of North America, published in twenty volumes and twenty portfolios ranks as one of the most beautiful, complex and costly publications ever created in the United States. The display is but a sampling of the 722 sepia-toned photogravures that illustrate this landmark work that attempted to capture the essence of Native American culture before being permanently altered by the incursion of European Americans.

Raised in poverty near Whitewater, Wisconsin, Curtis supported his family including his sickly father as a railroad worker and never received a formal education beyond the sixth grade. However, this tall, self-confident young man became intrigued by photography. He built his own camera and worked as an apprentice in a photographer’s studio. The family moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1887 and eventually settled in Seattle. In this blossoming coastal city, Curtis opened a photography studio, making a comfortable living creating portraits of Seattle’s economic and cultural elite. However, that would soon change.

In recognition of his skill, the eminent scientist Edward H. Harriman hired Curtis as the official photographer of a government expedition to Alaska. The 1896 expedition also included such luminaries as naturalist John Muir, ornithologist John Burroughs, and George Bird Grinnell, the editor of Forest and Stream, a highly respected magazine. This brought him into contact with the stunning natural wonders of this immense wilderness region. Subsequently, Harriman published a two-volume work illustrated with 253 Curtis photographs. Grinnell, an authority on Plains Indian cultures, introduced Curtis to the idea of field work and studying indigenous people in their natural setting. He also invited Curtis to accompanying him to a Piegan reservation in Montana to witness the Sun Dance ceremony. No longer would the young photographer confine himself to a studio. The great out of doors beckoned.

Back in Seattle, Curtis became intrigued with an impoverished, yet well-known Native American woman named “Princess Angeline.” She was none other than the eldest daughter of Chief Seattle. In 1896, through gentle persistence, he persuaded Angeline to pose for his camera. Another Native American who was held in deep respect was Chief Joseph of the Nez Pearce nation. The chief came to Seattle in 1903 to witness an American football game. Because of his importance and the press coverage, Curtis brought him to his studio to capture his likeness. Later in life, the photographer recalled, that the chief so impressed him that he told University of Washington professor, Edmond S. Meany: “I still think he was one of the greatest men that has ever lived.” The chief passed away the following year. His doctor said he died of a broken heart.

While Curtis could have lived a well-to-do life with his prosperous portrait business, he saw in the Native American a much more important undertaking. The following quotation by him captures the mission that would absorb the majority of his life: “The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other; consequently the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time. It is this need that has inspired the present task.” With his exposure to these tribes, Curtis realized that what he was seeing required a permanent tribute in the form of a publication of uncommon size and content.

Through fortunate contacts, he met President Theodore Roosevelt who, in turn, was impressed by Curtis’ photographs and encouraged him to undertake the publication. This, however, required heavy financial support and Curtis persuaded the noted New York tycoon and art and rare book collector J. Pierpont Morgan to provide $15,000 annually only for field work. Curtis envisioned publishing twenty volumes in five years with each volume illustrated with photogravures and an accompanying portfolio of unmounted prints. He published Volume I in 1907. To drum up subscriptions and monetary support, he created exhibits of his photographs and gave scores of well received lectures in places like Carnegie Hall illustrated with his hand-tinted color lantern slides.

Curtis, however, knew that such an undertaking would require a team effort and he assembled a devoted staff and key consultants. Back in Seattle, he entrusted much of the work to his assistant Adolph Muhr. An experienced photographer who already had photographed Native Americans, Muhr must be accorded much credit for the printing of Curtis’s glass plate negatives and production of the gravure plates. For the writing and field work, ethnologist William E. Meyer worked hand-in-hand with the photographer. In fact, Meyer did much of the actual writing and introduced him to the cultures of Vancouver Island. In addition, Frederick Webb Hodge, an ethnologist of great stature, served as the publication’s chief editor. Hodge headed the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution and edited the scholarly journal, American Anthropologist. Later, Hodge moved to the Los Angeles area and directed the Southwest Museum which specialized in the history and anthropology of Native Americans. Curtis also realized that he needed to be introduced to tribal leaders before he would be permitted to photograph them. Perhaps his most important field guide was Alexander Upshaw who spoke several native languages and understood their mannerisms. This partnership enabled Curtis to penetrate deep into Apsaroke society. “Through him,” he wrote, “I am getting into the heart of the Northern Plains Indian in a way that gives me the greatest satisfaction.”

The story of the making of The Indians of North America ranks as one of the dramatic in publishing history. Some have compared it to the publication of the King James Bible and John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. However, considering the complexity of the subject matter, the travel, courtship of sponsors, selling subscriptions, the elegance and cost of production, and the creation of its glorious illustrations found in twenty elegant text volumes and twenty large folio portfolios, neither equals The Indians of North America. In creating this monumental publication, Curtis visited more than eighty tribes and took over 40,000 photographs. Each volume consists of about 300 pages embellished with a total of 1,500 photogravure plates in the twenty volumes. Each of the twenty portfolios held thirty-six or more copperplate photogravures, measuring 12 x 16 inches, on 18 x 22 sheets. Altogether, the portfolios held 722 unbound plates. John Andrew & Son of Boston and the Suffolk Engraving Company of Cambridge, Massachusetts produced the photogravure plates and the Cambridge University Press printed the text pages. Sparing no expense, Curtis had each quarto-size volume bound in gold-stamped Levant morocco leather and the portfolios bound to match the books.

Despite the announced five-year publication schedule, Curtis seriously underestimated the time and cost. When Volume XX rolled off the presses, it was 1930. World War I and the Stock Market Crash of 1929 seriously affected subscriptions. Others simply lost patience with the delays and gave up. Throughout the project he was deep in debt. To keep cash coming in, Curtis ceded copyright to the House of Morgan which included not only his text but also his gravure plates and glass plate negatives. The New York firm had already invested $2.5 million in the project or about $50 million today’s dollars. Altogether, only 222 sets were bound and sold. Another fifty sets were created but not packaged.

Keenly interested in all aspects of Native American life and known by Arizona indigenous peoples as the “Shadow Catcher,” Curtis realized he needed to expand beyond taking pictures to more fully understand the rich and diverse tribal societies he was documenting. He recorded 10,000 songs on wax cylinders, wrote down vocabularies and pronunciation guides for seventy-five languages, and transcribed an incalculable number of myths, rituals and religious stories from oral histories. This self-taught photographer-ethnologist through heroic patience gained the confidence of the various tribes. Only in this way could he win their acceptance as he unloaded his cameras and recording equipment in their villages.

The California State Library’s Copy

Thankfully, the California State Library wisely chose to subscribe to this monumental work and stayed with it to the end. The Library already possessed such treasures as Audubon’s double elephant folio on birds, an atlas of hand colored plates by George Catlin depicting Native Americans, and many other rarities embellished with original hand tinted plates and photographs. As one of the most ambitious and significant publications of the early 20th century, the purchase of The Indians of North America was compatible with the State Library’s collecting policies. Moreover, two of the proposed volumes and portfolios would be devoted to California tribes.

Found in the Curtis papers at the Pierpont Morgan Library is the original signed “Subscription Agreement” between the author and the State Library. On May 9, 1910, State Librarian James L. Gillis signed the contract. The State Library received Set Number 69 making it one of the first subscribers. According to the agreement, the Library agreed to pay a total of $3,200 payable in installments of $160 for each volume of text with the supplemental portfolio. As part of the contract, Theodore Roosevelt and Curtis signed the volumes. Fortunately, too, the Library paid for the last volumes before the Great Depression riddled its acquisition budget.

Sadly, Edward S. Curtis died in poverty and without friends on October 22, 1952. While he gained financial support from Morgan and from subscriptions, this funding barely covered his field work and the cost of production. Curtis himself did not receive payment. By the time Volume XX reached publication, his health was broken from years in the field. Earlier, his wife Clara divorced him as he was never home devoting virtually all his time to interacting with the various tribes or working around the clock at his Seattle studio supervising the printing of his glass negatives and the production of the photogravures. Clara also gained possession of his Seattle business and many of his negatives. To survive, the once famous photographer moved to Los Angeles and obtained employment with movie producer Cecil B. DeMille. And for many years the genius of his work went unrecognized.

A New Appreciation

Over the last several years, professors, curators, librarians, and collectors have praised The North American Indian. Some questioned the fact that he occasionally dressed his subjects in native costume surrounded by props rather than as they were at the moment. Due to his zeal to record songs and indigenous languages, descendants have revived their own native language and ceremonies because of Curtis. The Hopi, for example, used the volume devoted to the tribe to build and solidify its teaching, traditions, and language. His brilliant photographs certainly gave the viewer a breathtaking look at the landscape and a respectful view of indigenous people before massive and rapid development and change. His rich contribution to our nation’s heritage is best summed up by the contemporary Kiowa novelist, poet and essayist, N. Scott Momaday: “Taken as a whole, the work of Edward S. Curtis is a singular achievement. Never before have we seen the Indians of North America so close to the origins of their humanity… Curtis’ photographs comprehend indispensable images of every human being at every time in every place.”


Gary F. Kurutz, Main Exhibit Curator, with the assistance of Brittney Cook, California State Library Foundation

Vincent Beiderbecke, and Matthew Bartock, photographers, California State Library

Kirk A. Rudy, Gallery Director, Edward S. Curtis Gallery

Sariah Groff, head Preservation Department, California State Library