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.

The figure in the image is actually a Kwakiutl tribesman dressed as a Thunderbird. It’s a detail of a photograph shot by Edward S. Curtis, published in 1914. If you’ve never heard of Curtis he was a portrait photographer, living in Seattle, who decided sometime around 1900 to begin documenting the Native American tribes living in the Pacific Northwest. This project, with eventual interest of Theodore Roosevelt and resultant funding by J.P. Morgan, evolved into a 20 volume ethnographic opus called The North American Indian. The first volume was published in 1907, the last in 1930, at which point Curtis had shot about 45,000 photographs of over 80 separate tribes. Impressive though those numbers are, and expansive though the project was Curtis died in 1952, broke, and with his life’s work forgotten.

“They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.” So said Karl Marx. Were that representation pictorial and cultural rather than political, the sentiment might well be characterized as the driving force behind The North American Indian project. Curtis was a strong adherent to the prevailing sense that the American Indian was a “vanishing race” with no hope of maintaining any identity as Indian, and that it was the duty of the dominant culture to record the existence of the one being absorbed.

It was this conviction that lead him, in the course of his documentations, to go so far as to stage photographs depicting tribal traditions which had gone out of popular practice 50 years prior to his arrival with camera in hand. He paid tribes to undertake ceremonies out of season and reestablish ceremonies no longer practiced. He brought with him props, wigs, shirts, and other accouterments to “reenact” scenes, and was careful to remove “modern” items already adopted by tribes from the frame before shooting. His interest was in the “traditional” Indian, regardless of whether those traditions had already evolved away from the preconceptions of white america.

It’s because of this subjective tampering that Curtis’ photographs, even after their rediscovery and popularization in the 1970’s, remain somewhat controversial. On the one hand there are charges that his photographs, to large degree, simply reenforced the condescending stereotype of the “noble savage.” On the other hand it is unarguable that much of the material in The North American Indian does, in fact, represent unique ethnographic data recorded nowhere else. The prevailing attitude toward the project seems to be that though it is most assuredly “of its time,” harboring all manner of preconception, it is none the less invaluable for what it did manage to record.

In any case as regards Curtis’ life work I think it’s important to mention two things:

1) Even without intervention or the use of props or staging, photographs of this kind, framing a conquered culture through the conqueror’s lens and produced specifically for the conqueror’s consumption, will inherently deal in presuppositions. That seems inescapable. They will reinforce stereotypes to the exact degree to which the viewer, or framer, holds them dear.

2) 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.

Now to the photographs themselves…

Let me be the first to admit that when you have a collection as large as Curtis’ to draw from, you can gather together a group of pieces that illustrate damn-near any point of view you wish to support. For my part, I don’t want to drive home any particular point about Curtis’ outlook or the experience of the Native American’s he photographed.

I chose 18 images, drawn mainly from his time spent with the Kwakiutl and Navajo tribes, and exclusively of men obscured by ceremonial dress, their humanity left only as a vague outline, because I find them to be, as a group, a particularly potent illustration of the subjectivity inherent to viewing not only photographs of other cultures, images of the “Other,” and images of the unknown, but images of the past in general. These photographs are of men without men’s faces, without eyes to search, without familiar situations to read into, and so you are left to your own perceptual devices.

Quote: “It is a truism that to visitors of a new land – certainly to settlers – the original inhabitants were profoundly Other: The settlers may have had to struggle physically with the indigenous people for possession of the land, and in the process the original inhabitants became that which the settlers defined themselves against. It was virtually inevitable that the representations… would incorporate, reflect, or respond to, perhaps justify, the assumptions of the dominant (whites). ...The representations produced by the project tend to conform, in other words, to the lineaments of “the white man’s Indian.” ...Members of a dominant group, no matter how “intimate” their sense of their involvement with the people concerned, will represent nothing but the assumptions of their own kind.” – From the introduction to Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian by Mick Gidley.

Quote: “If the modes of seeing in different communities are at least in some respect irreconcilable because they reflect incommensurable presuppositions about the human situation, how can such communities understand one another? Or are cultures windowless monads– communally solipsistic entities in which only those who share the same conventions can make sense of one another, with everything outside the cultures walls either ignored or relegated to the status of error? Can one culture use its own terms to say something about another culture without engaging in a hostile act of appropriation or simply reflecting itself and not encountering the otherness of the Other? –From Chapter 2 of Play and the Politics of Reading: The Social Uses of the Modernist Form by Paul B. Armstrong.

Quote: “When the last Red Men shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the white man, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone.” -Attributed to Cheif Seath in an address surrendering the Puget Sound region to Governor Isaac Stevens in 1854, but which is almost certainly a fanciful recreation set down by some unknown author many years later. Coincidentally, it was Seath’s daughter, Princess Angeline, who was Curtis’ first Native American subject. 

Personally I find this group of photos, in the almost total disembodiment of their actual subjects, really compelling. Their historical accuracy makes no difference. I can’t help but imbue them with a host of disparate, sometimes totally contrary emotions. My mind draws all kinds of corollaries and branches out into all kinds of narratives. Most likely you, yourself, draw a whole other set of conclusions…

Anyhow, though Curtis didn’t live to see it, his work is now widely written about and very well represented on the internet. Curtis’ story is a fairly interesting one, the debate over and reactions to his work even more so, and there is a whole lot of it to be seen out there if your so inclined-

Nortwestern University Collection
Library of Congress Collection collection
First People
Project Gutenberg
Edward S. Curtis in Context
Selling the North American Indian
Flurry & Company Ltd.
Video excerpts from Coming To Light
PBS American Masters
Prayer to the Great Mystery
The Imperfect Eye of Edward Curtis.
Etc, Etc, Etc.

Hope you enjoyed.