Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Edward S. Curtis or the Shadow Catcher

Photograph by edward curtis of an indian in traditional tribal costume with mask

Edward sheriff Curtis or the Shadow Catcher (February 16, 1868 – October 19, 1952) 
was an ethnologist and photographer of the american west and of native american peoples.
Curtis' goal was not just to photograph, but to document, as much american indian (native american) traditional  life as possible before that way of life disappeared.
Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of indian language and music. 
He took over 40,000 photographic images from over 80 tribes. 
He recorded tribal lore and history, and he described traditional foods, housing, garments, 
recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs. He wrote biographical sketches of tribal leaders, 
and his material, in most cases, is the only written recorded  history although there is still 
a rich oral tradition that documents history.
Though curtis was largely forgotten at the time of his death, interest in his work revived in the 1970s.
Curtis has been praised as a gifted photographer but also criticized by professional ethnologists for manipulating his images. Curtis' photographs have been charged with misrepresenting native american people and cultures by portraying them in the popular notions and stereotypes of the times. 
It is doubtful that Curtis did anything disreputable or intentionally misleading considering his lifelong diligence to this art. His obvious intention was to showcase the american indian in "their own element" as accurately as possible which provided the only credible motive to his removing western materials, e.g. "a clock", from his photographs which were out of place anachronistically with "pure" 
indian culture. The same motivation can be applied to costuming and posing of the native 
americans which, contrary to his intention of expose, gave the impression of idealism beyond 
his actual intention of realism, albeit euphemistic.

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