Anthropology and Photography 2014 (1)

British Museum, Clore Centre, 29-31 May 2014

(P33)

Edward S Curtis and the early history of visual anthropology

Location Claus Moser
Date and Start Time 29 May, 2014 at 15:30

Convenor

Shamoon Zamir (New York University Abu Dhabi)  email
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Short Abstract

The panel will reassess the contribution of photographer and filmmaker Edward S. Curtis to the early 20th century history of visual anthropology and to related debates about the relationship of anthropology and aesthetics.

Long Abstract

The twenty volumes and portfolios of Edward Curtis's The North American Indian (1907-30) constitute one of the most ambitious works of photography and of ethnography ever undertaken. Yet a serious consideration of Curtis's contribution to visual anthropology is largely missing from the proliferating disciplinary interest in visual anthropology's early history. Recent scholarly reassessments of Curtis's work have moved away from Postcolonial critiques of his project and have relocated the work in new cultural, aesthetic and ethical frameworks. The panel will bring together scholars who have made leading contributions to this reassessment: Mick Gidley (author of Edward Curtis and The North American Indian [CUP]); Shamoon Zamir (author of The Gift of the Face: Portraiture and Time in Edward Curtis [University of North Carolina]); and Brad Evans (co-editor of a new volume of essays on Curtis and his early ethnographic film and co-director of the team responsible for the film's recent restoration). One or two other panelists may be added.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

A Third Subject: Anthropology and the Claims of the Aesthetic in Edward Curtis's The North American Indian

Author: Shamoon Zamir (New York University Abu Dhabi) email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the relationship of image and text, of photographic pictorialism and ethnography in the work of Edward Curtis. The paper attempts to reassess the place of Curtis's work and of the aesthetic dimension in the early history of visual anthropology.

Long Abstract

Edward Curtis created not only one of the largest collections of photographs devoted to a single subject but he and his team also produced what is perhaps the longest ethnographic text in the history of anthropology. And yet this unique combination of image and text has been almost entirely ignored by the growing interest in visual anthropology and its early history. One reason for this may be the aesthetic emphasis of Curtis's image work; another may be his claim that the visual is more than mere illustration for the text or a source of raw data, that it is in fact an equal partner for the textual. This paper tries to suggest a new place for Curtis's combination of art and science within the early history of visual anthropology. The work of A.C. Haddon and his team on the Torres Straits provides a point of comparison.

Edward S. Curtis Among Navajos: Art, 'Superstition', and Ambiguity

Author: Mick Gidley (University of Leeds) email

Short Abstract

An examination of the contradictions and ambiguities declared and discernible in Edward S. Curtis’s photographic and ethnographic work among the Navajo in 1904 and 1906.

Long Abstract

Edward S. Curtis, working with Navajo people in Arizona during 1904 and 1906, produced, as analysis will show, some of his finest portraits and most evocative genre views. With the help of Sam Day, he also photographed and filmed figures and ceremonies especially masked and (re)constructed for his cameras. This paper examines the visual and written record of the encounter, pointing up both ambiguities evident at the time and those of its legacy.

Return to the Land of the Head Hunters: Indigenous Agency in the Making and Remaking of Edward Curtis's Landmark Film

Author: Brad Evans (Rutgers University) email

Short Abstract

This paper provides a theoretical and historical background for understanding Edward Curtis’s 1914 silent film, In the Land of the Head Hunters, featuring the Kwakwaka'wakw of British Columbia, from the perspective of those who participated in both its making and subsequent reception.

Long Abstract

In the Land of the Head Hunters, a 1914 silent film made by Edward Curtis with the Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) of British Columbia, was the first feature-length fiction film to star an entirely indigenous cast. Although a critical success, it made no money and was quickly lost to the archive (it was significantly re-edited and released in 1973 as In the Land of the War Canoes). Based on recent archival research, an interdisciplinary collaborative team has overseen a complete restoration of the film that returned the film's original title, inter-title cards, long-missing footage, color tinting, publicity graphics, and period musical score—now thought to be the earliest surviving original, feature-length film score. My paper will describe the film's significance and provide a theoretical framework with which to re-appraise it within the larger body of Curtis's work. Like his photographs, the film was originally meant to document a vanishing race. Instead, when resituated within the critical categories of motion picture genre, indigenous agency, and colonial modernity, this landmark of early cinema can be recast as visible evidence of ongoing Native cultural survival and transformation under shifting political conditions. For nearly a century and counting, Head Hunters has constituted a filmic lens through which to reframe and re-imagine the changing terms of colonial representation, cultural memory, and intercultural encounter.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.