Edward S. Curtis: Photographer with an agenda? You decide.

Edward S. Curtis - Piegan man and woman standing in open prairie

“Curtis has been praised as a gifted photographer but also criticized by some contemporary ethnologists for manipulating his images. Although the early twentieth century was a difficult time for most Native communities in America, not all natives were doomed to becoming a “vanishing race.”[27] At a time when natives’ rights were being denied and their treaties were unrecognized by the federal government, many natives were successfully adapting to western society. By reinforcing the native identity as the noble savage and a tragic vanishing race, some believe Curtis detracted attention from the true plight of American natives at the time when he was witnessing their squalid conditions on reservations first-hand and their attempt to find their place in Western culture and adapt to their changing world.”[27] Wikipedia


In many of his images Curtis removed parasols, suspenders, wagons, and other traces of Western material culture from his pictures. In his photogravure In a Piegan Lodge, published in The North American Indian, Curtis retouched the image to remove a clock between the two men seated on the ground.[28]Wikipedia




17 responses to “Edward S. Curtis: Photographer with an agenda? You decide.”

    • I don’t know what I mean. LOL. I guess what I think I mean is that we sometimes assume that photographers back then were just “documenting” things as unbiased observers. There are always some people who believe that things in the past were better and simpler (ie erasing the clock in the photograph as if Indians wouldn’t really have appreciated such a gadget–I happen to love clocks).


  1. I suppose photographers have always manipulated. No more so than today. Personally I prefer to record what I see. We have a bit of fun with our garden photos. Jackie always wants to remove tools and stuff lying about, so her work can be seen in the best light. I want to include them because they indicate activity. Not so different from the Curtis controversy, really


    • Good point. If the tools are pretty I don’t mind them in photos, but the other day I took an adorable picture of my baby goat but the wheel barrow ruined the shot. I don’t mind manipulation in photography–it’s why I never understood the controversies over women being photo-shopped for magazines. Don’t we all realize magazines are fantasies?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am not going to blame Curtis. Yes, it was art, so he manipulated. But also, yes, he was trying to capture the Noble Savage, a construct of the time, and yes, he wanted to capture a time he felt had already past before it was too late. The more we know about what we are seeing, the better, but I am so glad we have his images.


  3. Photography is more akin to art than simply reportage so I’m OK with the “manipulation”. I’ve just been looking through some of his prints. His subjects are always such strong personalities, whether men or women. Either that or we have all become lily-livered since his day πŸ™‚


    • I would have been happy to show there was hope in some overlap in civilization with the clock. So many more Native Americans just became Americans so while their culture took a hit big time, there are still many, many people with native blood. I guess they liked their clocks like the rest of us. πŸ™‚


    • There you go upsetting the apple cart. πŸ™‚

      Yes, one wonders what is real or not. I remember reading about Matthew Brady’s Civil War battlefield photos and how quite a few were sort of staged or arranged for a better picture. Not sure how I feel about that.

      Liked by 1 person

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