Vanishing Race and the Ethnographic Present

BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow recently discovered the Library of Congress’ extensive collection of Edward Curtis photographs. Since this means that thousands of people will now be looking at those images, I think it is important to discuss how they were made.

The anthropological term the ethnographic present refers to the artificial construction of a time before contact with European culture, and is best illustrated by this Far Side cartoon:


Curtis worked very hard to construct such an ethnographic present in his photographs.

In order to portray traditional customs and dress, Curtis–using techniques accepted by many anthropologists of his day–removed modern clothes and other signs of contemporary life from his pictures. A portrait of a Piegan lodge, for example, originally showed an alarm clock between two seated men. Curtis cut the clock out of the negative and included the retouched image in The North American Indian.

Like contemporary anthropologists, Curtis’s motives were not to deceive, but to show respect for a way of life that was under attack:

Curtis began his photographic project during the height of U.S. government efforts to assimilate the Indian population. Most Indians were restricted to reservations and made dependent on government agents for food, clothing, and other essentials. Tribal governments and native languages were suppressed and religious ceremonies were banned. Indian children were taken away to boarding schools, taught English, and trained to fit into white mainstream society.

But underlying his work was the assumption that native life was doomed, so beautifully captured in his haunting (staged) photograph “The Vanishing Race”:


By depicting them in this romanticized way, Curtis may have done more harm than good,

Other Indian people protested that the pictures are romantic images that stereotype and dehumanize the people in them. A few pointed out that if Curtis had shown the real plight of people on reservations, his images might have led to government reforms that could have helped their ancestors.

In a recent James Faris article, “Navajo and Photography” (in the book Photography’s Other Histories) he shows us two Curtis pictures of the same Navajo model:

curtis002 curtis002 copy

Can you guess which one made it into Curtis’ book?

Faris ends his chapter with a discussion of some contemporary Native American photographers, including Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, whose work is an interesting counterpoint to that of Curtis.


Census Makes a Native Artist, from the series “Creative Native”
1992, © Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie

More Curtis links here.

25 thoughts on “Vanishing Race and the Ethnographic Present

  1. This is quite a sticking point in Native/non-Native relations. The stereotypical images of Aboriginals lead to so much inaccurate knowledge on behalf of non-Natives that it often hinders good relations between members of the two groups. This isn’t a new issue either. When I was doing my lit research for my M.A. on the topic of Native/non-Native relations in Canada, I frequently came across writings from the 70s, which is when a huge chunk of this literature was written, that addressed this point. Several anthropologists
    pointed out that the negative judgements of white settlers toward Aboriginals largely stemmed from their perception that members of the latter group were not living up to the ideals of the past, a past that was largely romanticised.

    I like Renato Rosaldo’s term for this phenomenon: imperialist nostalgia, where colonisers and other agents of forced change romanticise a previous way of life that they have actively been involved in changing.

    Interesting from and anthropological point of view but from a personal point of view, it makes my blood boil.

    By the way, out of the two Navajo pics above, I really like the second one. But, of course, the first one with the “tired and miserable looking Indian” is probably the one that made it into the book.

    There are so many positive things going on in Aboriginal communities. Yes, there are negative things. But by focusing uniquely on the negative, anthros and others help foster the image of Aboriginals as passive victims, regardless of their actual intention.

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  3. Oh great, now every time I watch Rocky Horror Picture Show, I will hear, in my head: “Kerim Friedman . . .double feature”

    Thanks Bob, thanks a lot 🙂

  4. I always thought the ‘ethnographic present’ just referred to whenever the anthropologist did fieldwork — for instance “the ethnographic present for this study is 1989-1991” and was used to explain why everything happens in the present tense (“the Kaluli _are_”).

  5. Rex: The usage I know comes from Fabian’s _Time and the Other_, referencing the idea that using the grammatical present tense itself tends to “fix” the descritpion in an unchanging, ahistorical “now”. So, for instance, for readers of Benedict’s _Patterns of Culture_, the Zuni “are” quiet, apolitical, anti-conflict, etc., which might be a surprise to people who visit the community today. That’s the only use I’ve ever seen, though yours is possible — and not entirely opposed to it. WHile we might not make much of it — after all, anyone can turn to the front of the book and read the publication date, right? — but it does raise the question of why anthropologists write about experiences *we* had in the past in the present tense. That is, why would I write “the Meskwaki are…” when I haven’t been in the community for 2 years? What am I assuming?

    Kerim: I had the good fortune of seeing an excellent Curtis exhibition in the Hague a couple of years ago. His photos are absolutely stunning, especially some made using gold on glass instead of the more traditional silver on paper. The story behind his project is fascinating, as well — he encisioned the publication of book after book, a complete documentation of Native American life. Of course, this requires money, and his funding situation fluctuated wildly over the course of his life; naturally, he died penniless.

    As you say, he went out of his way to present the “traditional” culture of a “vanishing” people (shades of BOas’ photos of the Kewakiutl, with a backdrop bracketing out the “non-Indian” trading post and other elements — or, indeed, the displays at the Columbian Expo, with secular, urban Turks playing the role of nomadic pastoral Bedouins). The goal was not so much the “tired and miserable looking Indian”, as Nancy put it, but a proud, stoic people grimly yet resolutely awaiting their extinction. IT should be noted that, at the time, this was a typical expression in photos, regardless of the symbolic intent — photos were serious business, and many people felt that smiling was too frivolous for such an important matter (and long exposure times made smiling a hard expression to pull off as well).

    The irony, of course, is that you can go to most any Indian cultural center or tribal museum and pick up a handful of Curtis’ images on postcards. Someone (James CLifford, maybe?) has pointed out the added meaning these cards take on when the people depicted are not “Mary White Eagle, a Hopi Princess” (I made that title up, though it follows a common pattern in Curtis’ titles) but “Maternal Grandmother Mary when she was 17, wearing the blanket we have over the sofa”.

  6. Maybe this makes me a monster, but I can’t help coming back to the fact that Curtis’s photographs *did* document a vanishing way of life. Not a “vanishing people”, but both a way of living in the world and a way of looking at the world — I think the critique of Curtis misses the way in which by posing his photos a particular way he was recording as much about a turn of the century sentimental worldview as much as (in fact quite a bit more than) about “Indian life” or “Indian lives”.
    One of the sort of unintentional (but nevertheless fundamental) premises of critiques of works like Curtis’s is that it would have been better, somehow, had he not taken any pictures at all. That is, instead of going out into the world and engaging non-powerful non-white Americans in the imperfect way that he did, it would have demonstrated superior virtue on his part had he just stayed home and minded his own beeswax. Because there is NO way, given the history of white-Indian relations, he could have carried out an “innocent” project. that’s just a fact — history being what it was, no innocent project was (or is) possible.
    So the only possible avenue to thoroughgoing innocence would be passivity — we can happily poke away at Curtis but the anonymous millions of white Americans who stayed home and never took any pictures of anybody but themselves get a free pass from history. This kind of historical criticism is a prescription for present-day inertia: don’t do anything, you’ll probably get it wrong, better & far more virtuous to not get involved in representational anything because it’s tainted from the outset and bound to have been wrong in the long run. this is kind of the classic smug critique of contemporary ethnography, too. Elizabeth Povinelli has a nice line in one of her essays about how can we do anything, knowing we will have been wrong? It captures the paralyzing effect of these critiques of past representational practices.

  7. one more thing, just relating to the choice of photos, above. I think someone (I can’t remember if I have seen this, or just imagined that it exists) has done a little piece on how the photography industry has sort of trained us to smile for photos, so that now that seems like the more “natural”, unposed, spontaneous form for a picture. ie, a process of associating new portable camera technology with holidays, picnics, birthdays, fun fun fun. I know from my own fieldwork that people in Isoso are really eager to have their pix taken — not by just anybody, but by people whom they know will return copies (this probably never happened in Curtis’s case). Anyway, everyone is all excited and ready to go and in their best clothes and calls over the kids and the friends and relations to get *multiple* shots taken, the baby alone, the baby with her brothers, the baby with her sisters, the baby with her mom, the baby with her grandma, etc. etc. — all in high spirits. but at the moment of posing everyone goes dead serious. Almost the lone smiling photo I took was by accident; it is of a young woman who was desperately suppressing a giggle and didn’t quite manage it — anyway. All of this is to say it isn’t really self-evident how to “read” photos taken so many years ago, I think.

  8. I really agree very strongly with Ozma’s thoughts here: there is something horribly paralytic about the Said-style critique of allegedly “orientalizing” representations. It’s not just that it simplifies “romanticizing” as a mode of representation while also coming up with a historically ungrounded charge to lay on the head of a past author of representations, that had the past author/photographer/what have you represented the images that we imagine would presently trigger our sympathies and mobilize political action, then counterfactually past suffering would have been avoided. The error here is that we place ourselves into some past audience and imagine that past audience and the political imaginary they inhabited to be us, our own. But past audiences felt and saw differently, within their own contexts. Had they seen the images that we presently imagine would engage our own public culture and direct new political consensus, it is not at all clear that they would have felt as we imagine we would.

    I also find the Said-influenced critique of colonial representation flatly false as well as misguided in its assumption that a representation taking place within an imperial or colonizing context contains no empirical information about the social and material reality of its subjects. Photographs are like written texts: they contain surplus meaning, they are “witnesses in spite of themselves”. There is also this sense that someone the producers of “imperial nostalgia” or other colonial discourses always choose the representation which they most require, that power always knows what power needs and power always gets what power wants. There’s an instrumentalism perceived in the common critique of these kinds of images that I simply don’t think is there, that a study of the actual production and reception of any such image reveals disarray, improvisation, contradiction, images which are widely copied by diffuse networks and images which fall quietly by the wayside, unseen and unnoticed, often in direct contradiction to the artist or author’s intent or aspiration.

  9. I’m not going to argue that a different set of images – the one’s excluded from the book – would have had a drastically different effect on history. At the same time, I don’t think we can understand these images without understanding the choices that were made – why some pictures were included and others not. That Curtis had people dress up in fromal outfits for daily tasks is was funny to his subjects, that he had them wear outfits from other tribes was a bit strange to them, and that he even had White people dress up in the outfits for some pictures is probably surprising to more than a few people. To deny that any of this is relevant because images have surplus meanings is to deny the historical endeavor altogether.

  10. Which is about history. Unless you want to argue that contemporary peoples are licensed by instrumental need due to some condition of inequity or oppression to produce the past which they require for contemporary political purposes.

  11. Not only would I not want to argue that – I don’t. I argue that Curtis produced a fictional account of his present (which is now our past), and I’m saying that it is important to recognize those fictions for what they are. And I also commented upon the fact that contemporary Native Americans are angered by those fictions.

    I find it very strange that you agree with Ozma’s implications that Curtis’ distortions and fictions were acceptable because he was fighting injustice while simultaneously suggesting that I am somehow justifying distortions of the past (which I am not).

    Personally I don’t really care to blame or justify Curtis. I do think that his distortions and fictions are a useful way to discuss the powerful myths he helped perpetuate.

  12. I think that we need a more complicated understanding than “distortion and fiction” to talk about representations like Curtis’. It’s not so much Curtis’ own intentionality that makes me think so, simply that I don’t think we know nearly as much as we think we know about how such representations were produced, circulated, and had effects then and now, nor nearly as much about what is contained within those representations. Whether they anger contemporary Native Americans or not tells you something about identity politics in the present; it does not tell you much about the historical content or meaning of such representations in the past. I’m disinclined in any sense, for even a moment, to subordinate the complexity of those issues to a sense that self-representation is a political imperative in the present, an accessory of sovereignity.

  13. Has anyone compared Curtis’ photographs with contemporary photographs of, gulp, the White Man?

    When I look at our collection of family photographs and go back a generation or two I see lots of stiffly posed portraits, apparently designed to depict the subject in a highly respectful and dignified manner. I recall, too, that a similar convention governs funerary portraits and photographs in China and Japan.

    Does the portrait of the woman that made it into Curtis’ published collection represent an “Orientalizing” choice or simply the decision that preserving the subjects dignity required the stiffer portrayal?

    Are we being anachronistic to admire the informal snapshot more than we do the serious pose?

  14. We are most certainly being anachronistic. And this is what upsets both Ozma and Burke. Curtis’ choice of which picture to use was certainly the “right” one for his time. Part of understanding his time is to understand why this was the right choice. And part of understanding the present is to understand why such a different choice would be made now. I think Burke is wrong to say that understanding such choices “does not tell you much about the historical content or meaning of such representations in the past” – I think it tells you a lot. Especially if you actually read the articles I link to. For instance, Anne Makepeace interviewed ten people still living who were photographed by Curtis for her documentary (the second article). Their experiences and their own choices tell us something about how they chose to be posed.

  15. John,

    I also want to add this quote from the PBS web site on Makepeace’s documentary:

    Curtis was a cutting-edge photographer who was influenced by Alfred Stieglitz and other avant garde photographers in New York who were trying to establish photography as an art form, like painting. They considered documentary photography merely mechanical, something anyone could do with the push of a button. Only an artist could make a picture that would look like a painting. These photographers used dramatic close-ups, diffused lighting, soft focus lenses, and abstract backgrounds to make their images look more like Impressionist paintings than photographs.

    I probably should have started with this, since it is in the context of the new pictorialists that I usually teach Curtis in my class. It is important because Curtis needs to be understood in light not so much of the norms for portrait photography at the time – but those of a small group of avant-garde artist photographers as well as the painters they sought to emulate. When viewed in this way, one’s reading becomes quite different.

  16. That’s interesting. But now you have me wondering what sort of painting it was that Steiglitz, et. al., were emulating. Were the impressionists, in fact, the standard to which they aspired?

    I ask out of profound ignorance, stimulated (1) by a memory that photographic portraits began with daguerrotypes, whose long exposures required the subject to remain still, normally in a static frontal pose and (2) an intuition—how well grounded I couldn’t say—that the second photograph of the girl beside the door (and I say “girl” deliberately, since the smile and pose give her a girlish appearance) remind me of Dutch and later realists, in which this sort of pose is a deliberate departure from the static representations of earlier religious iconography.

    Since this is so utterly off the cuff, won’t someone please correct me.

  17. They called their group “photo-secession.” I believe this was deliberately named after the Vienna Secession. But I think their actual sources of inspiration were quite wide. I think your intuitions are fairly accurate.

    What is important is to realize that Curtis had a wide range of visual styles available to him.

  18. I read the short Makepeace article, which is precisely why I have the comments that I do. Some precise points on it:

    1) The circumstance in which “natives” to be photographed wished to be photographed in fine clothing typical of respectable middle-classes of their time (or often an era just slightly earlier, in clothing that had become a family keepsake to be worn on formal occasions) and were asked instead to wear “traditional” clothing is historically recurrent at the end of the 19th and early 20th Century in many situations. I think that’s an extremely important pattern, but partly because I think it resists any simple reading of an imperial eye coercing an unwilling indigenous subject. The contest here, for one, is not about being photographed or represented; it is not an attempt by the subjects of photography to escape representation. Many photographs of “middling” Africans in fine “Western” clothing between 1890-1930 had a double circulation: the people photographed kept the picture as a family heirloom, while the photo was often used as a postcard for Western audiences, not infrequently with insulting captions making fun of the spectacle of an African dressed in formal Western clothing. For another, look at the desire here: the “natives”, in this case, are keely aware of the conventions of bourgeois portrait photography and wish to conform to those conventions, to self-represent not as suffering, starving, in hardship, not to communicate an abject condition, as Kerim suggests Curtis ought to have represented them, but to represent themselves as being like every other “respectable subject”.

    Note too what Makepeace observes about the ten subjects that she interviewed: that they were bemused by Curtis rather than offended. If we’re to be interested in what they have to say, isn’t that the sentiment we should consider? And if so, it seems to me a sentiment that has remarkably moral ambiguity to it, not one that invites a reading of Curtis’ practices as a disembodied act of orientalist nostalgia. Curtis’ subjects weren’t offended or outraged, nor, if you go by Makepeace’s short description, did they mostly regard Curtis’ supply of regalia as straightforwardly inaccurate or misleading. (Makepeace mentions an example of a Kwakiutl staging that seems to have been such).

    This is one of the things I most want to get at regarding the content of orientalist representations: it’s not arbitrary nor imposed from some god’s eye view outside of the contexts which it represents. Its content comes from dialogue, connection, fractured understandings: never as its subjects self-represent, never for the purposes which they would represent self, but neither without relationship to the “real” content of their cultures. Curtis or any other photographer, author, traveller, and anthropologist of the era was investigating through representation and investigation what was “authentic” and trying to reproduce one aesthetically or intellectually pleasing version of that. The content of the authenticity he produced had an empirical relationship to the history he was trying to remember.

    If we’re interested in how these images connect to the present, we also have to be interested in the ways that representations’ like Curtis’ inform contemporary Native American presentations of authenticity. I was struck once by this problem listening to Gerald Vizenor condemn anthropology for the first half of a talk, and then in the second half of the talk, using generations of anthropological knowledge in order to attack the inauthenticity of people claiming Native American identities which he felt they did not have. I think this is a move echoed in too many ways within critiques of colonial discourse and representation: we rule out an image or text as orientalizing and then call on it as evidence.

    I think this is one of the things Ozma noted: that after all, Curtis was not wrong in suggesting that the clothing, ceremonies and so on that he sought to represent were in fact becoming historical, and Makepeace suggests that some of his subjects knew that too. I think it’s interesting and important and complex that they seemed less worried than he did about that, or seemed to think that static photographic representations were not their preferred response to that dilemma. But for us, I see no reason why we shouldn’t view both Curtis’ photographs and the complex responses of his subjects as useful information, which to me means we should also resist responses that insist we bracket his photographs off as moral failures or instruments of a colonizing power.

  19. ooh, now I want to meta-disagree in multiple ways (insert image of hands rubbing gleefully here). First, I don’t rememember Kerim saying Curtis ought to have represented Indians as “abject”, I thought instead he objected to Curtis’s implication they were a “vanishing race”?

    But I agree with Timothy Burke that we become confused when we look at past representations “out of time”. At the turn of the century, the conviction that Indians in many parts of North and South America were a “vanishing race” wouldn’t have been entirely misguided or prompted by bad faith alone. Many people — white and Indian alike — believed this to be the case. The effects of colonialism, exploitation, immigration, etc. etc. happened at different rates in different places. The east coast of the Americas (North and South) suffered catastrophically early on. But other places — the West, the Amazon –hit a “demographic nadir” circa the turn of the century, but didn’t go on to look like the east coast for that reason (that is, mostly non-Indian; mostly black or mostly white). We know *now* that unlike the east coast (which never again came to have significant Indian population), in the N. American West and the S. American interior these populations have grown/are still growing enormously since [it’s also interesting that the populations of the Andes and Central America never quite counted as “Indian” in these sentimentally pessimistic [Sahlins’ term] representational prognostications of decline, as their indigenous populations were always robustly enormous] One of the first things I ask students in any class I teach on the indigenous Americas is whether they think the indigenous population of the Americas is getting bigger or smaller. They always think “smaller” but the reverse is true. So while it’s true that Curtis-type “imperial nostalgia” imagery helped create that impression, it’s important to know that that impression *seemed* correct in his era (for the West as for the Amazon) *but* that whatever its representational resonance, the impression turned out in fact to be wrong. So yeah — representation is powerful but in this case it did not turn out to determine facts on the ground.

    Now, TB also says:
    “I think this is a move echoed in too many ways within critiques of colonial discourse and representation: we rule out an image or text as orientalizing and then call on it as evidence”

    But this doesn’t seem to me so much a telling critique as a re-statement of the inevitable. How can one *not* (1) recognize the ways that Curtis’s images are sentimentalized and (2) still find them powerfully affecting and even informative. I would guess many contemporary Indian viewers experience this double-consciousness particularly acutely in looking at the images. These are not either/or questions — it’s not like EITHER you use (say) anthropology’s info OR you critique it. I think one must have it both ways. Or, to address the example of Gerald Vizenor’s talk — I wasn’t there, but I bet the double-edged use he made of anthropological evidence contributed to the making of some good points. Pointing out internal contradictions is only useful if the contradictions pointed out are *more* telling than is the argument from which they have been ferreted out by a dogged critic.

  20. One of the things that makes Curtis’ case so interesting is how it so fully embodies the colonial situation. If I recall correctly, Tim Burke has been very exercised in his responses to SM posts by the tendency to see colonialism as the simple imposition of cultural norms by force — here’s a case where we can see colonial power in action in a way that is absolutely not about coercion, in which agencies abound and, in many cases, can be identified and traced.

    First, of course, there’s Curtis himself. We know from his writing that he saw the Indians as a “vanishing race” — consider his photo, the one he chose to open his entire collection with, entitled “Vanishing race – Navaho” and described by Curtis as follows:

    The thought which this picture is meant to convey is that the Indians as a race, already shorn in their tribal strength and stripped of their primitive dress, are passing into the darkness of an unknown future. Feeling that the picture expresses so much of the thought that inspired the entire work, the author has chosen it as the first of the series.

    And yet there’s a great deal of respect in his work — particularly the portraits are remarkable for the humanity and dignity he imparts to his subjects. In many ways, Curtis reminds me of Boas (the ethnographer, not the academic or institution-builder or political activist) — the good and the bad. Like Boas, he was concerned with salvaging the remnants of a people he considered, if not lost entirely, at least on the brink of extinction. Like Boas, he was concerned with creating not just a picture of a people but an entire context in which to situate those images — he collected folklore, music, oral histories, and other material alongside his photographic material. In this he followed Boas’ lead in “objectifying” (literally) the culture of his subjects — turning the “stuff” of living culture into “objects” that could be collected, studied, and displayed.

    Then there’s his funder — I was wrong before about there being several backers of his work; most of his work was done with the backing of J.P. Morgan. Morgan was, we know, an archetypical collector and displayer — he invested much of his surplus wealth into the importation of classical texts and artifacts, which now make up the basis of the collection at the Morgan library in NYC. His backing brings into play a range of questions about philanthropy and capitalism, as well as aesthetic criteria about what constitutes/constituted a valid representation. Primarily, it raises the possibility of considering Curtis as an agent of capital, or even a tool — I’m not saying this is the only way or even the best, but it might be a fruitful one. In any case, Morgan had reasons for funding the work which may (in some cases) or may not (in others) have meshed with Curtis’.

    Then there’s the subjects themselves. As the documentary noted above shows, in some cases it is possible to talk to the subjects themselves, to let their voices stand alongside Curtis’. I don’t think this can be a question of “well, the Indians liked the pictures, they were bemused, of course they wanted to look dignified” as if that settles the matter. Like Curtis and Morgan, they were enmeshed in a colonial situation — they were, indeed, colonial subjects. The expectations and intentions they brought to their sittings were shaped by this situation, which seems obvious — not so obvious is the point that so were Curtis’ and Morgan’s.

    As Tim B. notes, as aesthetic, symbolic objects, Curtis’ photographs are loaded with surpluses of meaning. It is a testament to Curtis’ talent and craft that they can offer such a troubling pleasure even today, when so many of his assumptions are no longer shared. As artefacts of the colonial sitauation, I would suggest that they aptly represent the complexities of colonial power — with all the conflicts and contestations and negotiation and ascent that comes along with it. It remains true that Curtis was a representative of a powerful class in a dominant society who was empowered by his position to produce and collect images of less pwoerful people under the yoke of political, economic, and often military conquest. It also remains true that Curtis most likely saw his work as interjecting itself in the process and heading off the worst abuses of that system of conquest. And it is also true that the people he was empowered to photograph had their own interests, some of which were advanced by cooperating with Curtis, others that were in spite of or in resistance to Curtis’ own.

  21. On the Vizenor talk, my problem with it was precisely that he seemed unaware of the contradiction: rubbishing anthropology as compromised from soup to nuts one minute, unconsciously using it as the foundation of stated knowledge about what makes a Native American authentic the next. If he’d underscored that move as contradictory, I agree, it becomes very powerful in various ways. Made unconsciously, I think it just becomes a gambit in identity politics-type assertions of cultural ownership, that Vizenor locates the capacity to judge authenticity within himself, the sourceless consequence of his identity (very much what Sahlins calls Obeyesekere for doing).

    I agree with much of what Oneman says, though the following of the money up to JP Morgan and the suggestion (quickly qualified) that ah-hah, there we have the supreme agent of capital at the bottom of it all, is a sketching of power that’s pretty well at odds with the acceptance of complexity elsewhere. (Not the least of which because the assertion that the final link in a chain leads to someone who has the ultimate interest in the extension of colonial authority is kind of weird simply because Morgan is the most remote actor in the entire picture, with the most aesthetized engagement in the whole matter.)

    I do think portraying everyone as enmeshed, trapped, compromised, is a moment where a very particular politics breaks through disguised as an axiom. If everyone is enmeshed in a colonial situation at a certain moment in history (and that enmeshment can be read through without too much effort into the present, if shifted), then in a sense, so what? That simply makes the colonial situation into the equivalent of the totality of the social, with no specificity. No one is outside of it, just positioned differently within it. Enmeshment also of course poises us to imagine escape, freedom, the possibility of another condition, but the totality ascribed to past colonialism also forbids us to find it in any actually existing past moments or actions. (Paging Docteur Foucault…) To me, this suggests we ought to flip this whole discourse on its head. Rather than everyone enmeshed in the coils of some horrible beast, why not recognize that there was significant amounts of freedom, autonomy, possibility, agency in these kinds of histories and in the representations they generated? Rather than the accusation of a remorseless discourse which always does what power needs, why not the recognition of a lot of local agents improvising, articulating, serendipitiously misperceiving, fumbling in the dark to describe one part of the elephant and occasionally making up a platypus instead? Why don’t we recognize at least some of what someone like Curtis did as creativity, understand it as generative of meaning and possibility (intentionally and unintentionally), rather than always primly seeing it as nothing more than remorselessly ideological or instrumental reductionism, as always being that which power needed and that which power got?

  22. “Why don’t we recognize at least some of what someone like Curtis did as creativity, understand it as generative of meaning and possibility (intentionally and unintentionally), rather than always primly seeing it as nothing more than remorselessly ideological or instrumental reductionism, as always being that which power needed and that which power got?”

    Excellent question. I recall hearing a talk by Marshall Sahlins at Academia Sinica in Taipei, which turned on the different sorts of demand that traders exploited as they sailed back and forth across the Pacific, carrying furs to China, dresses with lots of ruffles, buttons and bows to Hawaii, and blankets to the Northwest of North America. After a young fellow rose and challenged Sahlins, evoking world system theory, I was moved to remark,

    “Anyone who believes that economic forces get translated directly into cultural products has plainly never worked for an advertising agency.”

    Now it occurs to me that the same might well be said of analyses in which “power,” evoked as a universal constant, explains nothing at all.

  23. If you enjoy Edward S. Curtis’s work, you will surely want to see The Indian Picture Opera. This is a remake of a Curtis 1911 slide show and lecture on DVD. I found it on Amazon. Its about an hour long, and an amazing documentary.

  24. as a professional photographer, i have to say that most people wear their sunday best to have their photographs taken, and have no idea how to pose. a common tool to ease anxiety for the subject is to enroll them in something they are used to doing, and hope to bring a certain amount of comfort and personality to the photo. i also have to say that every face looks different and each require different lighting and positioning to achieve technical beauty, which is determined by a variety of factors, including the artists’ vision.

    as an anthropology student specializing in native american cultures, i would have to say that most tribal people i have been around have a certain quiet, contemplative peace that resides in them while they work. it is not impossible to imagine some of the people portrayed working while in ceremonial dress, just wanted to look their best for the camera, and curtis positioned them in a position that reflected the sense of who curtis saw that person to be. who curtis saw his subject as, was the opinion of curtis, the only photographer to take on such a monumental task, who committed much of his life to what he thought was important to mankind. just the fact that the photographs are available for scrutiny, furthers discussion, knowledge, and the possibility of understanding a peoples that americans still do not. (for example…while at the san diego museum of man looking at the recent curtis exhibit, i saw a little girl who asked her mom what those people were doing, and where were they from. the mother responded with some rather uneducated babble and took the little girl closer to the exhibit. later that day, i saw the same mother, daughter, in the kumeyaay exhibit. who knows where that will go, but it was an introduction to learning made possible by curtis photographs)

    it is completely fair to believe that some people do not like the curtis’ photographs, and they are entitled to their opinions. but please consider that if you ask curtis what meant more to him, the photographs or the experience, i bet he would take the latter because at the time of his death, he had nothing but the memories. at a time when most americans did not care about or humanely treat the native inhabitants of this continent, curtis committed his life to bringing an important issue front and center in american mainstream. you judge his success.
    and lastly, the father of modern day anthropology, franz boaz, was digging up native american graves, sometimes within hours of burial, at the same time curtis was taking his photographs. and that being said, i hope when i’m older, i can reflect back on life and the accomplishments, contributions, successes and failures, and know that i worked WITH a group of peoples for the common good, rather than to steal from them for personal profit, prosperity, and position. But those last three statements are probably why the natives feel that columbus must have brought anthropologists, cause we still got it all wrong. our government and academia seem to be modeled in this fashion too and perhaps our entire culture as well. curtis may have died divorced and penniless but he experienced a group of peoples in a way that few get to, and sacrificed much of himself to do it. maybe if curtis would have been photographing boaz robbing graves, right after burial and ceremony, it would be the methods of boaz that i see criticized so much, rather than those of curtis. the posts on this site are great, and have encouraged me to return. i appreciate all of the insight i have read on here so far, and i love the thoughts that are provoked from reading the words of intelligent people.
    be the change you want to see in the world-dhali llama

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