Sacred Legacy: Edward S. Curtis And The North American Indian

by Matt Damsker


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Photographs by Edward S. Curtis. Edited by Christopher Cardozo. Published by Simon & Schuster; 2000. ISBN #0-7432-0374-7. Developed and produced by Verve Editions, Burlington, VT; c/o . Information on the Edward S. Curtis Foundation can be found at ; for information on the photographs, contact the Christopher Cardozo Gallery, at , or 1-888-328-7847. 192 pages. Price: US $60; CAN $88.50.

This is a monumental and definitive collection, rich with some 200 reproductions of Edward S. Curtis's peerless photography of the North American Indian. Superlatives come easily enough, but they won't do justice to the experience afforded by this book, an absolute labor of love and respect created for posterity and for an international exhibition by the leading Curtis authority and collector, Christopher Cardozo.

Cardozo has developed "Sacred Legacy" according to the organizing principles of Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) himself. The great photographer's 30-year project to depict and document the Native tribes of North America resulted in a 20-volume, handmade magnum opus, "The North American Indian," with some 4,000 pages of text and 2,200 images representing more than 80 Native nations. Cardozo follows Curtis's bibliographic path, with geographic regions presented separately and individual tribes within each region vividly described.

These classic photogravures, silver, albumen, and platinum prints, along with a few moody blue cyanotypes, are more than images, of course. Taken together, they amount to nothing less than our collective consciousness of the ravaged history of Native American life. There is no way to calculate how pervasively these photographs have confronted us, directly and indirectly, in print, in film, and on television over the years, but it is easy to see how profoundly they have influenced other photographers. The somber, uncluttered frontality of Curtis's views of Apache chiefs, Zuni women, Hopi braves, or Navaho medicine men are the formal and spiritual archetypes for such postmodern photographic triumphs as Richard Avedon's "In the American West," just as they are the less obvious soul of Diane Arbus's portraiture.

Not surprisingly, though, the ultimate power and godliness of these photos lies not so much in their mythic stature as in their details--the granite-like facial plains and deeply etched, desert-sanded lines of a Klamath woman's proud visage; the beadwork and war paint; the tight mesh of Mohave basketry and painted clay of Hopi pottery; the feathered headdress and horned ceremonial garb. These reproductions have been lovingly rendered from Cardozo's unmatched source material, so it is fair to say that this is as good as it gets on paper stock. Even the most difficult images are crisp--for example, the enshrouding sky background of "Night Scout," the deep perspective and shadow of the Cahuilla tribe's Palm Canon oasis, or the riot of textures evident in an unforgettable photo of an Assiniboin brave cradling a slain eagle to his breast.

A book this powerfully produced deserves potent wordsmithing as well, and Cardozo has not fallen short on that front. The most deeply felt essay is by Joseph D. Horse Capture, a descendent of the A'ani tribe of central Montana and now assistant curator of the department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Curtis photographed his great-great-grandfather, Horse Capture, a tribal leader and holy man, and the image--a deeply shadowed profile of dignity and resolve, with the barrel of a rifle strengthening the vertical plane from the lower left--is nothing less than a masterpiece.

"Few images have had such an impact on my life as Edward Curtis's 1908 photograph of my great-great-grandfather," writes Horse Capture. "Because my father, George Horse Capture, discovered Curtis's portrait of our ancestor, the members of our family have been fortunate to have prints of this photograph in all of our households. Horse Capture is with us in all of our homes; his presence helps choose the directions we take in life. Seeing his face not only reminds us of our relatives but also reinforces our commitment, as Indian people, to teach our people the ways of our ancestors."

In addition, there are essays by Cardozo, who provides detailed context from Curtis's written descriptions, and by the likes of independent filmmaker Anne Makepeace, whose 2000 documentary, "Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians", is already a classic of its kind. And Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist N. Scott Momaday (House Made of Dawn) offers a foreword that evokes the Big Picture as much as the Great Spirit of Curtis's art.

"These photographs comprehend more than an aboriginal culture, more than a prehistoric past--more, even, than a venture into a world of incomparable beauty and nobility," Momaday writes. "Curtis's photographs comprehend indispensable images of every human being at every time in every place. In the focus upon the landscape of the continent and its indigenous people, a Curtis photograph becomes universal."

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.