I recently had a conversation with a well-educated teacher who was pursuing a PHD dissertation about obscure Amazonian tribes. I mentioned that many of their customs were similar to that of Native American tribes. He replied “Well that’s interesting, too bad all the Native American tribes have been wiped out.”
I said that must be news to the South Florida Seminole tribe who own the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino chain – a billion dollar company- and the 300,000 Navajo who own a massive reservation in Arizona.
So the new exhibit at the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum – Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks, an exhibition featuring extraordinary vintage photographs of the North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis is a flashback to a hundred years ago when Curtis took these photos to document a culture he saw may be disappearing soon.
Curtis, a handsome adventurer born in 1868, first encountered Native American culture on a trip to Montana to see the Blackfoot tribe in 1900 as a photographer, he was so impressed by what he saw he began a 30 year venture to capture the image of the North American Indian. Financed by capitalist J.P. Morgan to the then large sum of $75,000, the project culminated in Curtis’ The North American Indian, a 20-volume, 20-portfolio set of handmade books. He took over 40,000 images including what they ate, housing, their garments, recreational activities, ceremonies, and funeral customs. He also recorded their songs and voices on wax cylinder.
A series of poor business ventures and decisions, plus a few marriages and divorces, ruined Curtis financially and personally. By his death in 1952 his work had been largely forgotten until it was rediscovered in a library basement in 1972. Today, this work stands as a landmark in the history of photography, book publishing, ethnography, and the history of the American West.
The exhibit Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks features both iconic and little-known works curated from a collection comprising more than 3,000 rare vintage Curtis photographs and related objects. The 100 images, created in seven different photographic print processes, are complemented by more 20 objects and ephemera that enrich the masterworks. The prints are among the finest examples that exist and, in some cases, are the only known example of a particular image as so many were lost or destroyed over the years.
Divided by geographic area, the exhibition showcases many of Curtis’ various styles, subject matter, cultural/geographic area, and medium. Curtis worked in and is represented in several print processes: photogravure, platinum, gold tone, toned and un-toned gelatin silver, cyanotype, and gold-toned printing-out paper prints.
While some photos are taken on site, many were done in a formal studio setting, probably makeshift in the deserts and plains he worked in. The stoic, somber faced tribal chiefs, women with children and dancers are fascinating in what they both reveal and conceal. The elaborate hairdos, jewelry, animal skin costumes and poses show a proud and connected people.
The exhibition was curated by Christopher Cardozo, author of nine monographs on Curtis and curator of Curtis exhibitions seen on six continents. A catalogue includes state-of-the-art reproductions of all 100 images in the exhibition, as well as over 50 additional photographs, ephemera, and objects. The catalogue is available for purchase at the Museum Store.
When it was completed in 1902, Whitehall, Henry Flagler’s Gilded Age estate in Palm Beach, was hailed by the New York Herald as “more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world.” Today, Palm Beach’s Whitehall is a National Historic Landmark and is open to the public as the Flagler Museum, featuring guided tours, changing exhibits, and special programs. The Museum is located at Cocoanut Row and Whitehall Way, Palm Beach.
The Museum is open from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and noon until 5:00 p.m. on Sunday. For more information about the exhibit, visit www.flaglermuseum.us.
The Exhibit Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks Features both Iconic and Little-Known Works of Curated Photographs by Curtis of Native American Indian