Seattle Art Museum’s ‘Double Exposure’ and the negative/positive legacy of photographer Edward S. Curtis

The Seattle Times, June 7, 2018

Edward Sheriff Curtis (b. 1868, d. 1952) was a complicated guy. And he left a complicated legacy.

He was an intrepid genius. He was also kind of a jerk.

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“Curtis is the elephant in the room for Native American photographers,” said Will Wilson, a Navajo/Diné photographer who is part of Seattle Art Museum’s upcoming exhibition “Double Exposure: Edward S. Curtis, Marianne Nicholson, Tracy Rector, Will Wilson,” opening on June 14.

“When people think about Native Americans, it’s probably a sepia-toned Curtis photo that pops up in their minds,” he said.

Curtis, who grew up the son of a poor minister, farmer and Civil War veteran, found work as an apprentice photographer and then found his mission, around 1895, when he took a portrait of Princess Angeline, the Duwamish daughter of Chief Sealth. That began a yearslong trek across the U.S., photographing and writing about Native Americans, resulting in a 20-volume series: “The North American Indian,” financed with seed money from J.P. Morgan.

He took tens of thousands of photographs — and made a feature-length film (unfortunately) titled “In the Land of the Head Hunters,” later rereleased and retitled by others as “In the Land of the War Canoes” — but he has been widely criticized for portraying Native Americans as romantic aliens, stuck in time, and editing out objects and articles of clothing that might make them look too “assimilated.”

“His images have cast a really long shadow over Native people,” said Barbara Brotherton, SAM’s curator for Native American art. “Curtis was undeniably an impressive American artist, but he entered the project with all the biases of his time.”

Seattle Art Museum had been watching for the 150th anniversary of Curtis’ birth — as it does for anniversaries of major artists. “It’s been a long time gestating,” Brotherton said.

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But, she added, the museum knew it couldn’t present a simple hagiography of Curtis’ work without acknowledging its contradictions. “Double Exposure,” she said, isn’t so much about Curtis and Native artists responding to his work as it is about putting them on equal footing.

The first thing visitors will see is an installation by Marianne Nicolson (a member of the Dzawada’enuxw First Nation of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations), who creates shadow-and-light environments with carved glass and lights, based on Pacific Northwest Native aesthetics.

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