View Photos by Edward Sherriff Curtis on Native Alaskan Culture | Smart News

ByDavid M. Conte

Sep 20, 2021

Edward Sherriff Curtis, Diomedes Mother and Child
Courtesy of the Muskegon Museum of Art

In Edward Sherriff Curtis Diomedes Mother and Child, a young woman looks straight into the camera with her lips pressed in a firm line. She is carrying an infant whose face has the opposite expression: an open mouth, furrowed eyebrows, flushed cheeks. Such images of mothers and their children are common in art history (think Mary Cassatt’s sentimental scenes of women with babies or the myriad interpretations of the Madonna and Child), but this toned portrait sepia looks particularly timeless, as the photographer grabbed the pair in the midst of a watershed moment.

The snapshot is one of more than 100 now featured in an exhibit at the Muskegon Museum of Art in Michigan, Lindsay Hoffman reports for FOX 17. Entitled “Edward S. Curtis: Unpublished Alaska, the Lost Photographs,” the exhibit presents recently discovered negatives of photos taken during the photographer’s trip to Alaska in 1927, displayed alongside excerpts from his personal diaries.

Treasure trove of never-before-seen photos documents Native culture in 1920s Alaska

Umiaks under sail, Kotzebue

Courtesy of the Muskegon Museum of Art

According to a statement, Curtis was a photographer and ethnologist who documented the lives of Indigenous peoples in Southwest, West, and Northwestern America in the early 20th century. Many of Curtis’ photographs have been published in his seminal life’s work, The North American Indian, but some have remained unused. A selection of these never-before-seen snapshots, passed down from Curtis’ family, form the heart of the new exhibit and an accompanying book.

“Some images have movement or the focus is not quite right,” said Coleen Graybill, wife of Curtis’ great-grandson John Graybill. Indigenous News Onlineis Tamara Ikenberg. “As long as they weren’t horrible, we decided to put them on because we knew their families would love to see the picture whether it was blurry or not.”

Treasure trove of never-before-seen photos documents Native culture in 1920s Alaska

O-la, Noatak

Courtesy of the Muskegon Museum of Art

Graybill adds that the project “isn’t just about showing off these never-before-seen things from Curtis, but sharing them with the people who care most about them. It’s really important to us.

“Unpublished Alaska” primarily features footage from Curtis’ trip to 1927, which found him, his daughter Beth, and his assistant Stewart C. Eastwood traveling to the town of Nome. There Curtis took pictures and completed the research for the latest volume of The North American Indian. Published between 1907 and 1930, the 20-volume series sought to record, through writing and photography, the lives of Indigenous peoples across the United States.

Highlights of the exhibition include O-la, Noatak, which shows a woman donning a fur coat, and a portrait of a young Inupiaq girl, Anna Nashoalook Ellis, who is now 97, by Indigenous News Online.

Although many hailed Curtis’ attempts to record Indigenous history, some critics have questioned the photographer’s portrayal of his subjects, accusing him of “advancing his career by ignoring the plight and torment of his subjects. », As Gilbert King wrote for Smithsonian revised in 2012.

Treasure trove of never-before-seen photos documents Native culture in 1920s Alaska

Kilk-ni-sik, in white fur parka, Cape Prince of Wales

Courtesy of the Muskegon Museum of Art

Indigenous News Online points out that Curtis often tried to portray indigenous peoples as they were 200 to 300 years before European colonization. He removed objects like modern clocks and vehicles from his photographs, staged ceremonies and dances, and dressed his subjects in outfits they would not typically wear.

“It’s hard to bring a contemporary sensibility to what was going on at the time, and there is real concern that this is a white man telling someone else’s story,” said Art Martin, curator at Muskegon. Indigenous News Online. “But on the other hand, it’s a piece of history and Curtis is bringing back what he was given.

John Graybill maintains that his great-grandfather had a vested interest in his subjects. Talk with Indigenous News Online, he says:

Whenever he went to camp, the first thing he did was find out which of the elders had the badges and that was what they would use in the photographs. He gathered information from interviews with elders. He was in this race against time to learn about all aspects of the culture and then make the photographs based on the information presented to them. It is a bit like the context in which he made these photographs, and this problem of pose.

Edward S. Curtis: Unpublished Alaska, The Lost PhotographsIs on view at the Muskegon Museum of Art in Muskegon, Michigan, until January 9, 2022.

Treasure trove of never-before-seen photos documents Native culture in 1920s Alaska

Four smiling Nunivak women

Courtesy of the Muskegon Museum of Art

Treasure trove of never-before-seen photos documents Native culture in 1920s Alaska

Edward Sherriff Curtis and his daughter Beth pose in a kayak.

Courtesy of the Muskegon Museum of Art


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