Thursday, Nov. 16, 2006 | Edward Curtis was probably slightly mad when he began photographing the “vanishing Indians” of North America in 1906. With a $75,000 grant from financier J. P. Morgan, Curtis planned to spend five years on the enterprise; by the time he finished his project 30 years later, he was a broken man.

In those three decades, Curtis hauled his equipment across 9,000 miles of often rudimentary roads to take pictures of 80 tribes west of the Mississippi (including Canada and Alaska), making 40,000 negatives and 10,000 recordings. He photographed southern California’s Indians in the 1920s. The first volume of his collection — titled “The North American Indians” — was completed in 1907. Although Morgan died in 1913, his son continued with some support, but Curtis was always strapped for cash.

San Diegans are in a rare position. The San Diego Public Library owns number 285 of the 300 or so sets that were printed, and through January, photos from the portfolios will be on display in the central library’s Wangenheim Room. Each set contains 1,500 volume-size and 722-portfolio-size photogravures, so because of the sheer number of images, librarians are rotating photos in and out of the display.

Curtis’ images of Indians are burned into the hearts and minds of many Americans to this day. They are also at the center of controversy.

The photos are so luminous and exquisitely composed that it is impossible to imagine the disputation that rages around them. Curtis started as a society photographer in Seattle, and his portraits of Indians are as stunning as those he might have taken of big-wigs. His eye was unerring, no matter his subject. In commenting on Curtis’ many images of women, the writer Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Band Chippewa, says that Curtis made his subjects so dimensional, present and complete that the women seemed to be present, alive in the print and looking back at her.

Curtis also draws us into haunting and spectacular landscapes of Indian country. The most famous of those is a shot of Indians on horseback crossing Canyon de Chelly, on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. The photo shows dark figures almost chiseled into a background of tall sandstone buttes and limitless space. He also photographs the mundane: the dwellings, baskets, pots and clothing of his subjects.

Still, Curtis’ images have not been universally welcomed in Indian country. Many Indians — and non-Indian scholars — object to Curtis’ methods, even if the results are stunning. For instance, Curtis arranged many of the photos carefully and at times ludicrously. His Hopi women ground corn in ceremonial dress, and he sometimes clothed individuals in items from other tribes.

Still, as UCSD scholar Ross Frank and Heidi Wigler, the Wangenheim librarian point out, Curtis’ legacy is troubling on more serious grounds. Curtis “collected” people, their dwellings, and their material culture (baskets, clothing, cradleboards, for instance). Anthropologists shelved Indians and their artifacts in museums — thousands of Indian remains rested in museums until repatriation — but Curtis froze them in images. “His approach was anthropological, he wanted to capture an ideal in a pure form, as if the outside world didn’t exist,” says Wigler.

Curtis was only interested in the Indian past, because the Indian present was “spoiled” by Euroamerican intrusions, and, like most Americans of his day, he was convinced that Indians had no future. So he carefully eliminates the white presence in Indian life. His photo of a Hopi ceremonial shows only Indians participating and watching; another “photojournalistic” version of the same ceremonial shows many whites attending (as they do today).

Curtis’ view is not only unrealistic but also a historical, because after 1492, Indian history is inexorably bound to white. Curtis documents the result of empire-building, but he leaves out the builders and process of destruction that accompanied it. Yet, as Frank puts it, the photos are valuable, because they are “the capstone of thinking about how America became a nation.”

Even more seriously, Curtis openly displays “scientific racism” in the photos. At the turn of the twentieth century, anthropologists were measuring skulls, creating categories of peoples, and using science to relate personality to race and to assert the superiority of the Caucasian race. (Anthropologist Frank Boas revolutionized the field when he railed against these bedrock ideas.)

Frank points out that Curtis named noteworthy individuals he photographed, like Geronimo, but he left most of his subjects suspended in anonymity, their individuality obliterated by their race. A Diegueño woman is simply “Southern Diegueño Woman,” and a Qahátíka Girl is “A Type of Desert Indian.”

For Curtis, biology determines personality. In his caption for “A Hopi Man,” Curtis writes: “In his physiognomy we read the dominant traits of Hopi character. The eyes speak of wariness, if not downright distrust. The mouth shows great possibilities of unyielding stubbornness. Yet somewhere in this face lurks an expression of masked warm-heartedness and humanity.”

Indians today “can talk back to the photos, they can object to Curtis’ ‘capture’ of their people,” Frank says. At the same time, the photos contain valuable information. Curtis photographed Hopi women with their traditional hair styles, elaborate “butterfly” knots on both sides of their heads. Because so many young girls were shipped off to boarding schools where their hair was cut off, Curtis’ photos allow today’s Hopi to see those hair styles.

Thomas Haukaas (Lakota), a Florida psychiatrist, reflects the ambivalence toward Curtis among Indians. In an exhibition catalog, he wrote that when he first saw Curtis’ Indians, they were completely different from the photos of drunk, lazy, stupid and dirty Indians he was used to. Curtis’ Indians were dignified, even regal. “They looked like my family,” he said. Haukaas defended the different clothing that Curtis put on Indians. Indians commonly borrow items from others when they are getting ready to be photographed. “By wearing apparel, even from another tribe, the message is, ‘I’m Indian and I’m proud to be Indian,’ ” he said.

Curtis was obsessed with his project. Its cost far exceeded the income from sales; a planned print run of 500 was reduced to less than 300. To keep it alive, he took odd jobs, once as a Hollywood photographer. Wigler said that despite financial problems, Curtis insisted on using quality paper and the finest printing techniques. “The North American Indians” ended Curtis’ marriage, and he suffered a nervous and physical breakdown. Cared for by his daughter, he died in Los Angeles, in 1952, at the age of 84, virtually unknown.

“The North American Indians” nearly disappeared, after the publication of its final volume in 1930. The Morgan estate sold Curtis’ original glass plates and other materials to a Boston rare book dealer, who sold several sets for about $1,245 each.

Then in the 1970s, beginning with exhibits at the Morgan Library in New York, Curtis’ reputation soared. Today, each of the 20 volumes from the original sets sells for between $7,500 and $23,000, so a complete set is worth between $150,000 and $450,000. Wigler will not disclose the exact cost of the library’s set, except to say that in 1965, purchased well before the Curtis craze set in, it was less than $5,000. The images are also available in numerous reprints — and on greeting and post cards.

In a project of heroic proportions, Northwestern University and the Library of Congress have digitized both the images and Curtis’ extensive accompanying text. The digital Curtis cannot in any way approximate the brilliance of his original images. So take a half hour out of your day and take the elevator to the third floor for an uncommon experience that is also free. The Wangenheim Room, designed to replicate a 19th-century private library, is a welcome retreat from the city.

Because of its rarity, the library’s copy of “The North American Indian” is usually under lock and key and in strict climate control. Even when its prints are out for a show, security is tight. The Wangenheim Room is open only when docents are present, from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Mondays through Saturdays. If this is not convenient, just call or email ahead, and Wigler will arrange your visit:, 619.236.5853. The Museum of Man in Balboa Park will also open a show of its Curtis collection on March 10. The museum is open daily 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and admission for adults is $8.

Correction, an earlier version of this story had an incorrect opening date for the Balboa Park event. The story has been changed to include the correct date of March 10.

Cathy Robbins’ book, “All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos)” will be published by the University of Nebraska Press. She is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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