Photo Pioneer's Images Challenge Modern Viewers

By April Baer (OPB)
Bend, Oregon Oct. 3, 2015 8:32 a.m.

This month Atelier 6000 continues its exhibition of photographic prints by turn-of-the-century pioneer Edward Curtis.

"Spearing Salmon", Edward Curtis, "The North American Indian, volume 13, Plate 454.

"Spearing Salmon", Edward Curtis, "The North American Indian, volume 13, Plate 454.

Courtesy of Atelier 6000

Curtis' life-long work taking portraits of Native Americans are a popular subject among Western museums and other presenters. Many casual viewers look to these photos as a window into the past.

But Curtis' work also present a lot of challenges. He was a white man photographing for an authentic view of Indian life — as he saw it. In omitting all trace of modern life, he created a romantic images of Indians writ large, avoiding any suggestion of the forces that were changing their lives so drastically. And we don't know much about the individual personalities of his subjects, many of whom were unpaid.

If you were listening two weeks ago, you heard Native artist Wendy Red Star raise some of these issues. It got us wanting to learn more, particularly since the Portland Art Museum has a show coming up that will involve contemporary native artists responding to Curtis's images.

So we spoke with Atelier 6000's executive director, Dawn Boone, and the curators of Native American Art and photography at the Portland Art Museum, Deana Dartt and Julia Dolan.

Boone started out by telling us why the decision was made to show Curtis in the first place.

"Our mission is very focused on printmaking and book arts," Boone said. "Curtis' work gives us a chance to show a very early intersection of photography and printmaking. … We really wanted to focus on the art-making itself, incorporating other organizations (The High Desert Museum, BendFilm, Deschutes Public Library, among others) to take on other aspects of Curtis' work."

This winter, Portland Art Museum will take a similar trip, using a different road.

Its show will feature photographs by three contemporary Native photographers: Zig Jackson, Wendy Red Star and Will Wilson. Their works will be presented in dialogue with prints by Edward Curtis. Each of the three has a very strong style, They all approach identity in different ways. Julia Dolan, Curator of Photography, and Deana Dartt, Curator of Native American Art at Portland Art Museum are working together on the show.

"We think it's really important," Dartt said, "to re-contextualize, to draw attention to the fact that these images don't represent a single archetype about Indian women and men. … Often they [the photos] are used to create a stereotype."

Listen to the full conversation with the link above.

Atelier 6000's show remains on view through the end of October.
The Portland Art Museum show opens in February.