The Gift of the Face

The Gift of the Face: Portraiture and Time in Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The Gift of the Face
    Book Description:

    Edward S. Curtis'sThe North American Indianis the most ambitious photographic and ethnographic record of Native American cultures ever produced. Published between 1907 and 1930 as a series of twenty volumes and portfolios, the work contains more than two thousand photographs intended to document the traditional culture of every Native American tribe west of the Mississippi. Many critics have claimed that Curtis's images present Native peoples as a "vanishing race," hiding both their engagement with modernity and the history of colonial violence. But in this major reappraisal of Curtis's work, Shamoon Zamir argues instead that Curtis's photography engages meaningfully with the crisis of culture and selfhood brought on by the dramatic transformations of Native societies. This crisis is captured profoundly, and with remarkable empathy, in Curtis's images of the human face. Zamir also contends that we can fully understand this achievement only if we think of Curtis's Native subjects as coauthors of his project.This radical reassessment is presented as a series of close readings that explore the relationship of aesthetics and ethics in photography. Zamir's richly illustrated study resituates Curtis's work in Native American studies and in the histories of photography and visual anthropology.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-1565-3
    Subjects: Sociology, Art & Art History, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Portfolio
    (pp. None)
  4. PART I Introduction

    • Chapter 1 Photography, Portraiture, and Time
      (pp. 3-22)

      This book explores relationships between aesthetics, ethics, and the human experience of time in photography; it does so through a series of sustained close readings of one work, unique in the histories of photography, of anthropology, and of the Native American cultures of the United States: Edward S. Curtis’sThe North American Indian. These readings are preoccupied above all with the ways in which the crisis of temporality brought on by the vast and profound cultural damage experienced by Native peoples, especially in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, comes to inhabit,...

    • Chapter 2 A Third Something: Image and Text
      (pp. 23-37)

      How the eyes and the hands experience the volumes and portfolios ofThe North American Indianinvites reflection on the modes of reading appropriate to the work of Curtis and his collaborators. The volumes, 12 inches high by 10 inches wide, are bound in Moroccan leather and printed on imported handmade Holland Van Gelder etching stock, Japanese vellum, or a fine Japanese tissue paper, the choice depending on the paper’s ability to accommodate a rich tonal range in the reproduction of photographic images. High-grade Japanese tissue was used for the portfolio sheets that measure 18 by 22 inches and that...

  5. PART II Time and History

    • Chapter 3 The Gift of the Face
      (pp. 41-54)

      “A Medicine Pipe” (plate 1), an image from the sixth portfolio, is an example of the achievement of portraiture inThe North American Indianand also of the integration of documentary illustration with the ethnographic text. It is this very duality, this potential for divided aims, that becomes in this image the enabling condition for an enhanced portraiture. “A Medicine Pipe” is, beyond any illustrative function it may serve, adoubleportrait. It is the portrait of a man but also, inappropriate as the designation may seem at first, an equally accomplished portrait of an object. It is at the...

    • Chapter 4 Against History’s Monopoly of Time
      (pp. 55-102)

      One image more than any other has been called to witness the excision of the time of modernity, which is to say of history itself, fromThe North American Indian. “In a Piegan Lodge” (plate 2) shows two men seated inside a spacious tepee surrounded by an array of traditional tribal artifacts. The Piegan were (and are) members of the Blackfoot confederacy. The image was taken in northern Montana, most likely in 1909, and published in 1911 as one of the loose-leaf photogravures in the sixth portfolio.¹ The caption names the two men but is concerned primarily with identifying the...

    • Chapter 5 Achieving Portraiture
      (pp. 103-130)

      To understand the achievement of portraiture inThe North American Indianwe need to understand the ways in which what I have referred to as deep temporality comes to occupy the face. The temporal multiplicity given externally through Curtis’s particular form of photographic alienation effect becomes an internal property of the face. The removal of the clock allows the element of portraiture in the Piegan image to come more clearly to the fore; it enhances conditions conducive to identification. As Judith Butler proposes, “identification always relies upon a difference that it seeks to overcome, and its aim is accomplished only...

  6. PART III Autography

    • Chapter 6 The Crow and Photography
      (pp. 133-158)

      Curtis claimed that many Native American groups willingly participated in the making ofThe North American Indian. He wrote that some tribes, once they had learned of his project, sought him out and invited him to visit them for the purpose of photographing them:

      The ordinary investigator going among them to secure information for a magazine article, they do not favor. But they have grasped the idea that this is to be a permanent memorial to their race, and it appeals to their imagination. Word passes from tribe to tribe about it. A tribe that I have visited and studied...

    • Chapter 7 Upshaw and Upshaw—Apsaroke
      (pp. 159-189)

      Tamara Northern, in her proposal thatThe North American Indianserved the struggles of memory and recuperation in the face of cultural loss, in effect sees the project largely through the eyes of the generation that had experienced a time before the confinement on reservations. But we must also try to understand what needs the project served for the younger individuals who participated in great numbers in its making. I look now in detail at Curtis’s portfolio portrait of his Crow informant Alexander B. Upshaw (plate 4). Unlike for most of the individuals Curtis photographed, we have access to an...

    • Chapter 8 Portraits as Self-Portraits of the Artist
      (pp. 190-235)

      This chapter continues to explore Native American agency and selfpresentation, as well as the relationship of tradition and modernity and the ways in which this relationship comes to reside in the portrait. Here, however, these concerns emerge through a reading that treats Curtis’s views of Native craftswomen and craftsmen at work and his portraits of these men and women as oblique reflections on the cultural location of his own photographic art. I treat these images, in other words, as a form of indirect self-portraiture. Furthermore, to the extent that these images are read as self-portraits, they are also read as...

  7. PART IV Art Science

    • Chapter 9 A Broad and Luminous Picture
      (pp. 239-264)

      Just twenty years after photography was first unveiled to the public in France and England by Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot, respectively, Charles Baudelaire penned a damning attack on photography’s aspiration to be considered a fine art. The critique comes in his review of the paintings of the Paris Salon of 1859:

      Let photography quickly enrich the traveler’s album, and restore to his eyes the precision his memory may lack; let it adorn the library of the naturalist, magnify microscopic insects, even strengthen, with a few facts, the hypotheses of the astronomer; let it, in short, be the secretary...

    • Chapter 10 A People of the Twentieth Century: Coda
      (pp. 265-280)

      It is fitting that Curtis broughtThe North American Indianto a close in 1930 with a volume and portfolio devoted to the Eskimos of Alaska. It was a research trip to this very region some thirty years earlier that had helped him imagine the form and scope of his life’s defining work. Curtis had begun to make pictures of Native American subjects as early as 1895 or 1896 while working in Seattle as a photographer of studio portraits and landscape views. But it was the Harriman Expedition to Alaska in 1899 that had brought him into sustained contact with...

  8. Appendix The Distribution of Images in The North American Indian Showing Signs of Modernity
    (pp. 281-282)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 283-302)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 303-316)
  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 317-318)
  12. Index
    (pp. 319-334)