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What I Learned From the Edward S. Curtis Showing at the Sejong Center

So, look. I’m, like, bright enough to know that colonization sucks. It’s bad. It can be (and has been) a force for great evil and pain in the lives of untold millions.

But the way we talk about this, and think about this, can be a strange thing.

Last night, Miss Jiwaku and I went to see a display of Edward Curtis photographs. If you don’t know who Curtis is, well, he was a photographer who made a compendium of images of Native Americans living in what he called a “primitive” state — that is, those who has not yet assimilated into the white colonial world of late-19th and early-20th century America.

I was sent the tickets by a former student of mine who was working at the exhibition. Unfortunately, she wasn’t there that day, so I didn’t get to see her, but I do hope I’ll be able to catch her again sometime, and thank her in person for the sweet gesture.

When Miss Jiwaku and I walked among the photographs, we commented here and there on how certain images seemed quite staged, how the look of sadness on some faces in the portraits was impossible to fake but the pose and the costume seemed designed to present a kind of faux-archaism in the depiction of people who likely dressed in modern (ie. Western-styled) clothes most of their lives.

We had our postcolonial awareness filters on, in other words, and that’s not a bad thing in itself — in fact, when looking at the photographs Curtis took, it’s almost inevitable to feel some reservations of this kind, at least if you’re bright and educated enough to get it about colonial historiography. There is a kind of romanticization and simplification going on in some of the images that one can’t help but notice, when glimpsing from the image to the date it was taken, and seeing dates that seem more recent than one might have guessed. As I walked among the images, I was relentless in noting these things, and marinating my ego in a sense of post-historical, hindsight-powered superiority.

It did not survive the evening, though. 

I say this because, at the end of the photos, we reached a room where a documentary about Curtis’ “Indian Work” was playing. We didn’t see the whole thing, but I think we caught most of it. What was interesting was how the film changed our perceptions of the images — but also, the differing reactions of the people interviewed throughout the documentary. For one thing, it was mostly white Americans who seemed to be very critical of Curtis (not that they all were, or that anyone was relentlessly so). Still, it was mostly white folks who kept pointing out the staged nature of the images, the cultural distortions and so on; the Native Americans who were interviewed pointed out that, yeah, people didn’t walk around dressed up in traditional garb most of the time, but that traditional clothing was nonetheless “fancy dress” and it wasn’t bizarre to wear it. There was a case where a Native man pointed out that one image had its details all wrong — that war parties in his nation did not go out in winter, and did not ride horses when went out to a battle — but he seemed more amused than morally outraged by it.

(Maybe he was being polite. Maybe he was used to seeing such distortions. Or maybe he was less horrified by the theatrics and fantasy because that was part of the cost of getting those pictures taken at that time. I’m not sure, though I wish I could ask him.)

Some of the Native Americans interviewed commented on how the pictures took them back to childhood; others commented with gratitude about the fact that they were able to see images of people from their past — their ancestors, both in the general and sometimes in the direct sense. (Some people actually pointed out how this or that person in a given picture was a grandfather or grandmother of theirs.) Other people noted details about the garb used in the pictures, saying things like, “I used to wear this when I was a little boy, and I didn’t understand then, but I understand now.” A lot of people had very positive things to say about the pictures, and I can’t help but wonder whether they were being nice, or whether more critical Native American commentators (say, Native American academics?) weren’t approached, or were cut… I’m curious.

Not all the white Americans were so negative about the pictures, of course. Some emphasized the scope of Curtis’ project, as well as the inherent self-contradictions it seemed to balance: after all, the 20-volume set of books titled The North American Indian that Curtis photographed, wrote, and published was an insanely huge project, as well as an insanely expensive one. (And badly timed, one must add.) Curtis spent years of his life on it, spent most of his family’s money, thereafter being divorced by his wife and going into virtual penury. The man was obsessed, egomaniacal by the accounts in the film, but also charming and relatively respected by the Native Americans who interacted with him. (According to the firsthand accounts in the film.)

Curtis at once embodied a kind of curious compassion for Native Americans, and a disturbing sense of surety that they were bound to vanish from the world. In an America where people tended not to think much of Indians, or to consider them troublesome, Curtis documented parts of the Native American experience that nobody else had done (in English, anyway) and photographed people that nobody else thought were worth the effort to photograph.

Yes, he exploited people, and he exploited cultures that were being smashed apart by colonial occupation — and he did so at least in part in the service of that very Western taxonomic and collecting impulse as any genuine compassion for real Native Americans. Curiously, every attempt to exploit their culture (including the picture slide show he toured with and the film he made) drove him deeper into poverty and his project deeper into peril… not that being a bad exploiter excuses one’s exploitation. But Curtis was functioning in — and, I’d argue, destroyed by — a system comprised of the same forces that the people he photographed were dealing with, albeit on a different footing. Indeed, this was the very system through which the work Curtis did was possible — he was funded by J.P. Morgan and by a list of subscribers to his series of volumes that would comprise The North American Indian.

His time in Hollywood especially seems to be telling. He spent time raising funds by working on movies like De Mille’s The Ten Commandments and his own ethnographic fantasy, In the Land of the Headhunters; the compromises he had to make in the latter troubled him but he did it anyway. For example, he knew very well that the people in his film were not a whale-hunting group, but he also understood that for a picture to succeed, spectacle and drama were necessary — so he took his cast and crew to a commercial whaling station and filmed a fake whale-hunting success.

It was fake, fake, fake, and of course the fact that a white man was calling the shots and having impoverished Native Americans present odd distortions of their culture to other white people as entertainment — yes, obviously that should give us all pause. But at the same time, the Native Americans in the film were the protagonists, were sympathetic characters — which I’m sure was a rarity in those days. Only a generation earlier, according to Curtis, the popular sport in California was hunting Native Americans to death, in a nation where Indians were about as far from the national consciousness as could be (except for in an occasional negative light) and here was Curtis making a movie where these people were the heroes. That’s not a small thing.

Of course, the film (like Curtis’ work) suffers from a lot of romanticization, but the people who posed for Curtis were not just passive actors. It’s interesting that white — or non-Native — commentators tended to focus on the power dynamic in a way that ignores any possibility of negotiation… unequal, to be sure, but it’s not as if Curtis chained the Native Americans he photographed up or exerted mind-control on them. There are, in the images we saw, moments of arresting humanity — sorrow, or amusement, or dignity. There are small signifiers that the subjects of the photos included in their dress, in their poses, in their expressions that matter. They were not — and could not be — completely passive subjects.

I’m not trying to engage in an apologetics of colonialism, or of the romanticization of Native Americans. There’s plenty of that in Curtis’ work, and we should be aware of the bias, of the distortions. I’m trying to get at something a little different from that: a recognition that in colonial societies, not all people who hail from the colonial power’s shores are simply and straightforwardly cogs within the machinery of the colonial system.

Duh, I know. But it’s always been easier for me to see this within the way Japanese colonialism is discussed in Korea (with all Japanese reduced to the cog-in-the-machine status, even those who were essentially screwed over by the people running their nation).

While we should be aware of the biases evident in Curtis’ images, I don’t think that this awareness should make the work as completely inaccessible to us as it kind of was to me before we watched the video. When I first walked around, looking at those pictures, I was constantly pointing out to myself, and sometimes also to Miss Jiwaku, what looked staged or romanticizing. I missed things that I now thing are important about those photographs, because the theories I was working with in some sense rendered Curtis, and his subjects, as relatively more like cellular automata in a mathematical system than like people in a historical context.

I was blinded, to some degree, to the conscious self-presentation of his subjects, to the apparent sympathy and interest in the Native Americans that seems obvious in some of the photos Curtis took. I can be troubled by his narrative, but in a sense it’s the kind of troubled feeling I have when someone here in Korea decides to make a dish less spicy because of the widespread misapprehension that Westerners cannot handle spicy food, as opposed to the nasty stares or the muttered curses I sometimes get on the street or subway by one of Seoul’s many bigoted jerks.

Obviously it was patronizing and colonialist that Curtis went around calling Native Americans “the vanishing race” but then, that was something he seemed concerned about, at a time when plenty of Americans would have liked nothing better than for the native people of the land to vanish without a trace. Curtis went out among these people and recorded their stories and history, made wax cylinders of their songs, took pictures of their faces and aspects of their lives; in doing this, was he really worse than his countrymen, who, when they were not involved in the brutalization of the Native people in their area (through, say, compulsory assimilation policies) preferred to have nothing to do with them?

Curtis wasn’t perfect, and his work is even riddled with important problems; but that doesn’t mean his work isn’t also important, or should be dismissed out of hand, without a sense of context, without a deeper sense of what someone was trying to do. It’s unreasonable to ask perfection of anyone, if you ask me, and in some sense I have to credit the man, despite his blinders, for actually trying to document the Native Americans he did, at great personal expense. It is difficult to be good in a bad world, and I’d say it’s pretty much impossible to be perfect. Obviously it isn’t wrong to regard colonialism with a jaundiced eye, but that jaundice can also make it hard to see details and subtleties that are important. People are not cellular automata. They are weirdly complex, their self-contradictions both estranging and familiarizing at once, intertwining in ways that are, as Rudy Rucker puts it, mathematically “gnarly.”

You and I are like that too. Never forget that someday people will look back on us in horror, too, for all kinds of of reasons we may just have an inkling of — the way we regard animals and the business of trading in their flesh; the stupidity of our nationalisms and jingoisms (and their usefulness in justifying all kinds of things); our passive acceptance of corporate power to date (though the Occupy Wall Street movement is starting, finally); our collective idiocy regarding the environment and climate change; or some other things we’re even less likely to notice while embedded in the present. Hindsight will not be so kind to us… after all, it rarely is. (And, more likely, we will be judged for all of those things at once.)

If you’re in Seoul but haven’t seen the showing, you’re too late: today was the last day. But for those interested, one volume of The North American Indian is available through Project Gutenberg, pictures and all, and there is some information (and samples) from Curtis’ movie here. The documentary I saw about his work seems to have been this one.

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