Edward S. Curtis: The Women by Christopher Cardozo

Edward S. Curtis: The Women by Christopher Cardozo

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover, 128 pages, 2005

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: I love having gorgeous photograph collections around to randomly browse through when the mood strikes.

Synopsis: The Women is a collection of one hundred photographs focusing on the Native American women of more than eighty tribes (culled from what Cardozo believes may have been as many as 10,000 negatives in which the women were a strong presence in the photo). The photographs cover a lot of ground: portraits of elderly women, groups of giggling school-aged girls, mothers with their babies, women at work, women bundled up for winter – anything that Curtis believed captured the heritage and everyday lives of these Native women in the years of 1899-1928.

Why you should read this book: Talk about what a difference a century can make – today the strongest media presence pushing the idea of the diversity of beauty is a skin/hair care company campaigning for ‘real beauty,’ while a hundred years ago there was Edward S. Curtis (intentional or not). In each of the photographs in The Women, Curtis has captured beauty (most often unorthodox), whether it’s in the dramatic eyes of a much-wrinkled old woman or in the laughing smile of an unselfconscious young girl. This is an utterly gorgeous and fascinating collection of photographs, not just for their historical value, but as a signpost to stop and ponder how these ‘models’ glow from an inner self-confidence while so many of today’s images only hollowly imply this confidence can be bought with a $1,000 Louis Vuitton purse. Curtis clearly had a broad range of talent within his chosen art form, managing to veer gracefully between the ethereal and blunt, playfulness and distrust. Although some of the photographs maybe be similar in pose, Curtis managed to capture distinct personalities and emotions in each individual portrait. Regardless of the expression captured – serenity, resentment, patience, curiosity – when you look at Curtis’ photographs, you often get the feeling you’re looking not just at a moment, but at a whole lifetime, especially in the noble-looking elderly women where each deep line in their faces seems to have a hundred stories behind it. Just as impressive are the images he captured of the landscapes, clothing, and intricate beadwork of the tribes. Definitely worthy of your coffee table.

Why you should avoid this book: When you go to an art gallery, do you spend as much time reading the description plaques as you do actually looking at the art? You might find it a bit of an inconvenience that the descriptions of the photographs aren’t on the same page as their photo, but instead are all grouped together at the end so that you have to flip back and forth to get the background info that goes with the photograph. The topic, Native-American women in the 1900s being posed by a white guy that’s often more interested in esthetics than cultural accuracy (he would pose his subjects in their wedding dresses while grinding meal, for example), is admittedly very specific-sounding, and some people won’t really be drawn to it – but it’s really one of those books that surprises you (in a good way) if you give it a chance.

Opening paragraph:

When I look into the eyes of the women photographed by Edward Curtis, there is an exchange, there is intensity of regard. Curtis mastered the art of making his subject so dimensional, so present, so complete, that it is to me as though I am looking at the women through a window, as though they are really there in the print and in the paper, looking back at me. This is the genius and the gift of the work. The women photographed by Curtis are so alive that it seems any minute they will change their expression; the hint of a smile will turn into a hoot or laugh, the frown into exasperation. Just look into the eyes of Klamath Woman, photographed in 1923 (Plate 3). She doesn’t quite trust you. The bells on her hat will jingle in just a moment, when she turns away to go about her business.

Fabulous quotes:

As you peruse the photographs in this book, you will be struck by the cultural, geographic, and physical diversity among the women themselves. It is important to remember the tremendous differences in geography and climate among these native women’s environments when trying to grasp their great diversity. A number of the women shown here lived sedentary lives in the Southwest Desert, where the annual temperatures ranged from temperate to hot, and food, water, and material resources were generally scarce. At the other end of the spectrum, many women of the Northern Plains were semi-nomadic, and had to endure extremely harsh winters of sub-zero temperatures in an environment were game, water, and food were often plentiful.

Everything that gives birth is female. When men begin to understand the relationships of the universe that women have always known, the world will begin to change for the better.

-Lorraine Canoe (Mohawk), 1993

Also recommended: The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher; Mistress Bradstreet by Charlotte Gordon; Photography from 1839 to Today: George Eastman House, Rochester, NY by George Eastman House.

Also by this author: (Christopher Cardozo, photographs by Edward S. Curtis)

Sacred Legacy : Edward S Curtis And The North American Indian; Native Family; Great Plains; Edward S. Curtis: The Great Warriors; Hidden Faces.

Author’s website: edwardcurtis.com

Fun tidbit: Most of the girls of the Hopi tribe had no choice but to cut off their long hair in the boarding school they were forced to attend. The only girls with hair long enough for the elaborate ‘butterfly whorls’ Curtis wanted for his picture were two cousins sent home from the school with tuberculosis that refused to return when they were well again.

Would I read more by this author? I’d love to see more of Curtis’s photographs – I’m sure his photographs of Native men bring out yet another aspect of his talent.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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