In a hurry? Save or print these Collection Connections as a single file.
Go directly to the collection, Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian: Photographic Images, in American Memory, or view a Summary of Resources related to the collection.
A portrait is a painted or photographic likeness of a person. Often, a portrait shows only the person's face, but some portraits show part or all of the person's body. A good portrait captures not only appearance, but also character. Lighting, pose, where the subject's gaze is directed, props, and backgrounds are some of the ways a photographer can convey character.
Curtis made many portraits of Native Americans. Below is a list of just a few of the many portraits in the collection. Access many more portraits by Browsing by Subject and clicking on Portraits under the Persons heading.
- Chief of the desert - Navaho (The North American Indian; v.01)
- Inashah - Yakima (The North American Indian; v.07)
- Ogalala woman (The North American Indian; v.03)
- Esipermi - Comanche (The North American Indian; v.19)
- Arikara girl (The North American Indian; v.05)
- Black Eagle - Nez Perce (The North American Indian; v.08)
- Hopi mother (The North American Indian; v.12)
Examine several of Curtis's photographic portraits. Look carefully at the portraits before reading the captions. Notice the lighting in the photographs. Examine how the subjects are posed, where they are looking, which features are most dominant, and the expressions on their faces. Study the backgrounds and any other objects shown in the pictures. Then read the captions and answer the following questions.
- What, if anything, can you determine from examining the facial features and expressions in the portraits you studied?
- What do you notice about the lighting in the photographs? How does the lighting influence your response to the pictures?
- What do you notice about the ways the subjects are posed? What do you think Curtis was trying to suggest about the character of his subjects when he photographed them in profile ? Facing the camera but looking away from it? Facing the camera and looking into it?
- Are there any other objects or details in the background that suggest something about the subject's character?
- How do the captions tend to influence the reader's opinion of the individuals? What clues in the captions may indicate a bias?
- Which portrait is your favorite? Why? Write a caption for that portrait explaining why you think it is an excellent example of the art of portraiture.
In his essay "Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) and The North American Indian," Professor Mick Gidley says that Edward Curtis "kept abreast of national, even international, trends in photography — and in the visual arts more generally." In the second half of the 19th century, many photographers were concerned that photography be considered an art form. Taking what has often been called a "painterly" approach, they were at times more concerned about the visual effect of the finished photograph than about the subject matter.
Curtis was obviously interested in the subject of his work, as he devoted decades to photographing Native Americans. However, he also sought to make his work aesthetically pleasing. One way he did that was to stage the photographs (a strategy that also allowed him to manipulate the content or message of his photographs). Staging the photographs allowed him to control their composition, the way in which the elements of the picture are arranged to create a visually appealing image.
Examine the picture to the right as you consider these elements of composition:
- Balance. Formal balance involves showing objects of equal size in a picture. Formal balance can create a boring or uninteresting image. Informal balance involves using small objects to balance a larger object.
- The Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds has to do with where the main object of interest is placed in a photograph. Using the Rule of Thirds, an image is divided into thirds vertically and horizontally, creating a tic-tac-toe grid on the image. According to the Rule of Thirds, important objects should be placed at the intersections of the grid; also according to this rule, the horizon should be either at either the one-third or two-thirds line on the grid (rather than in the center).
- Line. Lines created by objects help to hold a picture together and imply certain meanings. Trees, mountains, or other vertical objects can provide a sense of strength or dignity. A flat expanse of land, a lake, or other horizontal objects can convey calm or peacefulness. The slope of a mountain, a person on horseback who is leaning into the wind, or other diagonal objects imply force or motion.
Locate ten photographs from the Curtis collection that you find visually appealing. Closely study the photographs you have selected, answering the questions below in your analysis.
- What type of balance does Curtis use in these photographs? Do you prefer formal or informal balance? Why?
- Does Curtis apply the Rule of Thirds in composing the photographs? Try cropping one or two photographs by placing a white piece of paper over the top, bottom, or sides of the photographs. Does cropping change the attractiveness of the photographs? The content or meaning of the photographs?
- What types of lines are depicted in the photographs? Do the lines convey the meaning described above? How does combining two or three types of lines in one photograph influence the viewer of the photograph?
- Do you think Edward Curtis was more concerned about the artistic quality of his photographs or the information they conveyed? Explain your answer.
Theodore Roosevelt, in his multi-volume Winning of the West, published in the 1890s, described American Indians as "lazy drunken beggars" who were bloodthirsty and cunning in war. Although Roosevelt wrote the preface for Curtis's work, praising it for its artistic merit, his view of Native Americans was distinctly different from Curtis's. What kinds of photographic evidence could be used to challenge Roosevelt's views? Select photographs from the collection that provide such evidence. Write an accompanying narrative to persuade readers that Roosevelt's description of Native Americans was inaccurate.
Helen Hunt Jackson was born in Massachusetts but became known for writing about Native Americans in the West. After hearing a speech by Chief Standing Bear, she wrote a book entitled A Century of Dishonor (1881), in which she condemned the U.S. government for its treatment of Native Americans. She also wrote a novel, Ramona (1884),which she hoped would have an effect similar to that of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Read a selection from Helen Hunt Jackson's A Century of Dishonor or Ramona and compile a series of photographs from the Curtis collection to illustrate the selected reading. Write captions for the selected photographs to reflect Jackson's portrayal of the American Indian. Would these captions be consistent with Curtis's descriptions? Why or why not?
Arts and Crafts: Pottery
Several Native American groups in the Southwest are renowned for their pottery. Use pottery and kiln to conduct a Keyword search for photographs of pottery, the construction of a kiln, and firing pottery. Examine Curtis's photograph of the pottery burners at Santa Clara and the polished black pottery of San Ildefonso shown below. According to Curtis, the black pottery revived a style reported in the chronicles of Coronado's expedition into what is now New Mexico.
In the 1920s, Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso invented a new style of pottery making based on the pueblo's famous black pottery. Consult an encyclopedia or art books or locate Internet sources on Maria Martinez. Examine illustrations of her distinctive pottery and compare it to Curtis's photographs of Southwestern pottery in the collection. How are the two types of black pottery similar? Can you detect any differences? If so, describe the differences.
Arts and Crafts: Basketry
Baskets and the making of baskets were important to many different American Indian cultures. A Keyword search for basket will generate a lengthy list of photographs of a variety of different baskets; the following are just a few examples:
- Washo baskets of the Diegueños of Southern California
- Hupa basket from Northern California
- Nunivak baskets of Alaska
Study photographs of baskets from several different Native American cultures. Answer the following questions:
- How did the baskets differ in design? Consider shapes, patterns, and materials used.
- What were the different uses of baskets? How functional were they? Are baskets used in the same ways today?
- What inferences can be made about the culture of American Indian groups from their baskets?
Arts and Crafts: The Kachina
In Hopi culture, Kachinas are sacred spirits. The carved figures representing the Kachinas, called Kachina dolls or Tihus, were originally used to teach children about deities and rituals. (They are not dolls in the sense of playthings.) The dolls were traditionally given to girls because women had less contact with the spirit world. Men had greater contact with the spirit world because they dressed in costumes to represent the Kachinas during important ceremonies. Some, dressed as ogre Kachinas, threatened disobedient children, whose mothers protected them by "bribing" the ogre Kachinas with food. The food collected during these ceremonies was distributed to priests and villagers.
Study Edward Curtis's photograph of nine Kachina dolls and answer the following questions:
- The roots of cottonwood trees were the preferred material for carving tihus. What other materials do the dolls appear to be made from? Why do you think these materials were used by the Hopi?
- Which of the dolls in Curtis's photograph would you consider ogre Kachinas? Why?
- What do you think the two tihus on the bottom left are doing? How do they reflect the cultural heritage of the Hopi?
- Today, Kachina dolls are prized by modern collectors. What do you think accounts for the current popularity of these carved objects?