Subjectivity and the Subjugated

Feathers and beak but not a bird, not quite. It is roughly man-shaped; and though the head tilts and the arms outstretch like a midnight stranger, without a face and without hands it is not a man either, not quite. It is Man-but-not-Man, that most ancient mold for the manufacture of disquiet, never failing to lend a nightmarish quality to the unknown. The light is cluttered with hard shadows and the mind, unsure, is forced toward interpretation. You are a child and it is a swooping, enveloping horror. You are a hunter and it’s an avenger. You are a Freudian and it is your mother hovering, unreachable, in the middle-distance. You are a seer and it is an omen. You are a vaudevillian and it is a punch-line delivered into silence. You are a captain of industry and it is an accusatory night-sweat. On and on for each. At bottom its simple: you are a you and it is not, which is enough. Its “otherness”  provokes an aggressive subjectivity.

These photographs are absolutely amazing. I’ve taken one course in Native American Anthropology, of course it primarily focused on current issues involving current tribes both Federally recognized and those without Federal recognition. And I continue to find the culture and religious practices of Native Americans extremely fascinating, however, these elements of Native American society, the intense and sacred rituals have been lost through history, war, and the horrific oppression the white invaders have put on this diverse and important community.

The photographs have an eerie awe to them. Each one captures a unique blend of broken humanity with the power of intense sacrament. This is an important collection that documents the unique presence of belief, culture, and diversity among Native Americans, while also undermining those generic stereotypes we do have to create the “American” identity of “Indians.” I’m just in awe of their history and culture now increasingly fading into the Americanized country and ultimately conforming to the American stereotype.

posted on 03.31 at 08:17 AM.

Another interesting aspect of Curtis’s bias towards bogus purity is that he carefully avoided photographing people of mixed heritage. No one who appeared to have a hint of European or African blood would make the cut.
Like you, I prefer his photos of masked people - they are wonderfully evocative. The Northwestern people were immensely gifted for art and spectacle.

posted on 03.31 at 09:23 PM.

I don’t mean to nit-pick, but you say “I chose 18 images, drawn mainly from his time spent with the Kwakiutl tribe”.  8 of the images are of men from other tribes.  7 Navajo and 1 Cochiti Pueblo.  I know that in the larger context of your post that the tribal affiliation really doesn’t matter, but the differences in culture and ceremonies between Kwakiutl, Navajo and Cochiti are rather large.  Having lived in the Southwest and studied both Navajo and Pueblo Indian culture and religion the differences are important to me.  I don’t know the relative extent of acculturation of these tribes when these photographs were taken, but I’m not sure they were the same.

Anyway, interesting post and food for thought.

posted on 03.31 at 11:26 PM.

“Regardless of exactly the nature of what his photographs evoke, they are evocative, and very often beautiful, which is possibly the best one can say about a photograph from the artist’s standpoint. Not from a documentarian’s, or an ethnologist’s standpoint certainly, but from an artist’s.”

Beautifully put. I couldn’t agree more.

That said, at first glance (as it almost passed by in a feed reader) the top image immediately flashed what is perhaps the most well-know photo from Abu Ghraib…the outstretched arms, the sepia tone, and the head tilt…or the “broken humanity” that grainsofinfinity mentions.

posted on 04.01 at 10:54 PMrobertogreco

Beautiful photos. Thanks for these.

posted on 04.02 at 04:10 AMsimon

Reminds me of this

posted on 04.06 at 01:36 PM.


posted on 04.10 at 10:59 PM.

Last Words.

Very Respectfully,

posted on 04.13 at 01:33 PMJoe Moran

To me, the way these photos are staged to pronounce the terror of the “other” does not take away from the beauty, but actually adds to it. Curtis was definitely a gifted artist, biased or not, exploitative or not. I know nothing about the man’s personal views, but it’s clear by these photographs that he had a fascination and respect for the art of the Pacific Northwest Native Americans.

posted on 04.17 at 06:46 PMDerek Sullivan

Wherefore art thou nonist?

without you…

The internet is the new TV.

posted on 05.20 at 09:05 PMJon

Yeah this is kind of scary bird!!

posted on 09.14 at 07:56 PMMotorcycle Fairings

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