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Curtis exhibit coming to a close soon

February 20, 2012

Chief Joseph, Nez Perce, is one of the many historic images captured by Edward S. Curtis that is currently on display at the Eastern California Museum. The Curtis exhibit is scheduled to come down Wednesday to make room for a photo exhibit about Manzanar. Photo by Edward S. Curtis/courtesy Eastern California Museum

There is only a short time left to experience the extremely popular exhibit of photogravures of Native Americans by Edward S. Curtis at the Eastern California Museum. The last day the exhibit will be shown in its present form will be Wednesday, Feb. 29.
The museum is open all three days of the President’s Day Weekend, which offers locals and visitors a good opportunity to view the Curtis exhibit.
In addition, visitors can discover how the placement of about a dozen A. A. Forbes photos of Owens Valley Paiutes has enhanced the museum’s Basket Wing. Originally, the Curtis exhibit included Forbes photos depicting the life and living conditions of Owens Valley Paiutes in the early 20th Century. Those historical photos have been moved to permanent locations in the Museum’s Gallery of Native American Life, which includes more than 400 Paiute Shoshone baskets.
Visitors will also notice an assortment of black-and-white photos of camp life at Manzanar on display. Those photos are a small sample of the Museum’s special exhibit for 2012, “Personal Responsibility: The Camp Photos of Toyo Miyatake.” The exhibit, planned to open at the end of March, will consist of about 65 original photos of Manzanar shot by Miyatake. He was a well-known photographer before being interned in Manzanar, and his photos provide a compelling view of camp life, in addition to being outstanding examples of the power, beauty and artistry of black-and-white photography.
The Curtis exhibit is another example of fine art photography infused with historical significance. Curtis’ work stands as a singular achievement in recording the rich culture and unique aspects of the daily life of nearly 100 tribes.
The Curtis exhibit at the Eastern California Museum consists of two dozen “photogravures.” The prints feature a representative sample of the photos Curtis made while spending almost 30 years traveling and photographing virtually every Native American tribe west of the Mississippi River. The exhibit contains stunning portraits of individuals, such as Chief Joseph; photos of various types of shelters and structures, from the simple, Plains Indian tipi to clusters of reed homes; photos showing an assortment of Native American tribes’ cultural and spiritual artifacts; unique, individual dress, clothing and ornamentation; and tools for daily living, such as baskets and boats. The selection of photos includes tribal members from the Plains, Pacific Northwest and the Southwest.
From 1904 to 1930, Curtis set out to create a scholarly and artistic work that would catalog the ceremonies, beliefs, daily life and landscape of the North American Indian before their way of life was completely altered by contact with white society. He visited 80 tribes and took 40,000 photographs. The result of his effort was the monumental, 20-volumn masterwork, “The North American Indian.” The work contained thousands of photos as well as extensive ethnographic text.
“The great changes in practically every phase of the Indian’s life that have taken place, especially within recent years, have been such that had the time for collecting much of the material, both descriptive and illustrative, been delayed, it would have been lost forever,” Curtis said in 1907 at the start of his photographic quest. “The information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time,” he noted. “It is this need that has inspired the present task.”
While scholarly debate continues about whether Curtis used his camera to “romanticize” his subjects as a “heroic, vanishing race,” and whether his photos were truly an objective documentation of each tribe, his proficiency as a photographer has not been called into question.
“The portraits are, quite simply, superb. Composition-ally, they have a classic purity and strength which seem ageless,” writes Curtis scholar A.D. Coleman. “Natural light is employed by Curtis in a consistently brilliant way … to establish the mood of each individual portrait, and to create an unusual feeling of space within a two-dimensional image.”
As for the other criticisms of the “reality” of what Curtis captured, Coleman notes, “These collaborations between Curtis and the Indians succeeded because neither he nor they were exploiting each other, but were bent on the same goal … to record the spirit of a people, to show us all and to find out for himself what it felt like to be an Indian.”
Wynnsan Moore, and the Moore Family Trust, of Bell Canyon, donated 30 “non-vintage posthumous edition photogravure” prints to the Eastern California Museum. The prints were struck from Curtis’ original copper plates in 1978 by Classic Gravure, of Santa Fe, N.M., and printed on Fabriano hand-made paper.
The Edward S. Curtis exhibit will remain in place until Feb. 29. Then selected works will be placed on permanent exhibit in a new location in the museum.
The Eastern California Museum is located at 155 N. Grant, St. in Independence, two blocks west of the historic courthouse, and is open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.
For more information, call (760) 878-0258, or check the web at

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