Edward S. Curtis: The Great Warriors And Edward S. Curtis: The Women

by Matt Damsker


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"Edward S. Curtis: The Great Warriors" by Christopher Cardozo; foreword by Hartman Lowamaima; afterword by Anne Makepeace. Published by Bulfinch Press, New York and Boston; ISBN 0-8212-894-3; 128 pages; 107 plates. $35, clothbound.

"Edward S. Curtis: The Women" by Christopher Cardozo; foreword by Louise Erdrich; introduction by Anne Makepeace. Published by Bulfinch Press, New York and Boston; ISBN 0-8212-2895-1; 128 pages; 100 plates. $3, clothbound. Bulfinch Press is part of Time Warner Book Group, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020; http://www.bulfinchpress.com .

These handsome volumes are the latest acknowledgements of Christopher Cardozo's authority as the world's great collector of photographs by Edward S. Curtis. Curtis's images are peerless, of course--an artful and poignant documentation of a vanishing Native American world in the early decades of the 20th century. Here, Cardozo offers two well-focused and definitive Curtis portfolios, and the burnished, earth-toned polarities he stakes out are especially powerful, balancing the fierce masculinity of the great tribal warriors with the gentle dignity and maternal strength of Native American women.

Importantly, "The Women" is the first collection to focus exclusively on Curtis's female portraits, while some 40% of the images included in "The Great Warriors" are either previously unpublished or little known. Of the two, "The Women" exerts a unique expressive power, especially in the photos of tribal women and their young children. As novelist and poet Louise Erdrich notes in her foreword, "These children are shortly to be taken from their mothers and sent to boarding schools run by the United States government…Loss trembles in the background."

Indeed, Curtis was exceedingly sensitive to the humanity his camera captured, and his portraits invariably suggest depths of wisdom and pain in these women, many of them wizened, their faces seemingly etched with the sting of Southwestern sand. While the young girls express a guarded optimism, the elders know better, but Curtis never stoops to sentimentality. He locates his subjects in their daily worlds--weaving, nursing, canoeing, carrying water--and in the wonderful garb of their simple lives and timeless ceremonies. From the Chinook to the Hopi, Curtis's Native American women help us define female beauty as a blend of generative power ("Everything that gives birth is female," a Mohawk woman is quoted as saying) and stoic grace.

Though the sheer humanism of Curtis's work is the most powerful aspect of these photos, his compositional eye is never uninteresting, especially in such great photos as 1906's "Watching the Dancers." In it, a quartet of Hopi women, seen from behind, regard an unseen tribal ceremony from the height of a weather-beaten stone wall. Their two-toned cloaks and coiled hair are all that define them as female, yet we can strongly sense their bonding and their centered stillness. Such images remind us that Curtis was not only documenting a dying culture and its archetypes, but also finding formal pathways that took documentary photography toward modern breakthroughs.

With "The Great Warriors," of course, Cardozo reminds us that Curtis's legend is built on the strong, noble backs and profound visages of the tribal leaders and braves whose worlds had been shrinking for decades. These photographs--the classic full-frontal and in-profile portraiture of chieftains and war-painted warriors, along with the windblown, heroic shots of braves on horseback--are elegiac in the truest sense, none more so than the remarkable posed shot of Apsaroke warriors pointing skyward with an arrow while they make an oath, or of a Blackfoot chief watering his horse by the Bow River. Curtis knew that the Native American identification with sky, earth, and water was at the center of selfhood in this world, and that as the borders of Native American land grew ever smaller, the sense of individual potency was threatened.

Thus, the extraordinary faces of Arikara braves such as Little Sioux or Four Horns, with their uptilted chins and prideful wariness, bespeak a defiance tinged with defeatism. Similarly, Curtis's shots of aged chieftains such as the Oglala's Slow Bull, or the famed 1907 image of the Apaches' Eskadi, convey despair edged out by dignity at the end of life. By now, of course, it's hardly news that Curtis' project is among photography's great achievements, its legacy a legacy of vital cultural preservation and immense compassion, its influence far-reaching (at least as far as Richard Avedon's "In the American West" series), its resonance unfading.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.