In a "politically correct" age, the photographs of indigenous North Americans taken by Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) may be seen as contrived, staged, and perpetuating the myth of the "noble savage". While it's true that these individuals, photographed during the early part of the 20th century, were already languishing on reservations and treated as second-class citizens, these images were not taken solely to appease and entertain those in power.
As Curtis himself wrote, "The information that is to be gathered ... respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost." To that end, he recorded tribal lore and history, describing traditional activities, customs, and ceremonies. This included making 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of native languages and music, and more than 40,000 photographs of 80 different tribes. In many cases, his biographical sketches of tribal leaders are the only recorded histories in existence.
The portraits taken by Curtis, seen almost a century later, are no less powerful for the apparent anonymity of people whose names and stories are long forgotten. The grace and beauty of the human spirit shine through.
More than 2000 of these images can be found at the Library of Congress, including many more portraits, all of which are profoundly moving.
Coming to Light is a documentary about the life and work of Edward S. Curtis.