Photographs offer a snapshot of a particular time and place, telling a careful viewer as much about the photographer as about the subjects of the pictures. Thatās often particularly true when the photographer isnāt a member of the group being photographed.
One example from the Library of Congressās collections is Edward S. Curtis, who dedicated most of his career to photographing Native American cultures and traditions to publish in a multi-volume book titled The North American Indian.
A close observation and study of even a randomly selected set of images will show that Curtis was photographing for a particular effect and purpose. The collection background indicates that āhe believed that indigenous communities would inevitably be absorbed into white society, losing their unique cultural identities. He wanted to create a scholarly and artistic work that would document the ceremonies, beliefs, customs, daily life, and leaders of these groups before they āvanished.āā
Some critics suggest that he manipulated the images, cropping tourists or indicators of modern life out of his photos because that didnāt fit his perspective on Native Americans.Ā In The Myth of the Vanishing Race, David R.M. Beck situates Curtisās work as part of a general ānostalgia for an āalmost extinct civilizationāā that included artificially constructed events like Wild West shows and an Indian village at the 1893 Columbian Worldās Exposition.
Students can select 8-10 photographs and study them for evidence or examples:
- ā¦of techniques that Curtis used. Are there props? How often does he take a close up? How often does he include background or use a long view? What is the effect of the choices?
- ā¦to support or refute Beckās claim that Curtisās work reflects nostalgia for an āalmost extinct civilization.ā They might respond in writing or by participating in a discussion or a debate.
- ā¦of what was important to the people being photographed.
Additional resources from the Library of Congress:
The essay Edward S. Curtis in Context includes background on Curtis’s work The North American Indian.
Edward S. Curtisās The North American Indian: Photographic Images Collection Connection offers historical context and teaching ideas.
In the comments, please let us know what your students see in these images.