For a brief, magical time in my children’s lives the Menominee Indians held an annual one-day pow wow right cross the street from our house.
The drumbeats and dance chants felt otherworldly and we walked through the displays with our mouths agape.
Famed photographer Edward Curtis would have loved the scene and the proud efforts of that tribe to honor its culture and educate fellow Wisconsinites.
I thought about that yesterday as I wandered through the Edward Curtis: Beauty, Heart and Spirit exhibition at the Trout Museum of Art. I had the place to myself, so I took my time admiring the astounding collection.
Born in Wisconsin and later raised in Minnesota, Curtis built his first camera when he was 12-years old. He moved with his family to Washington, where he became a successful portrait photographer.
Later, he developed a passion for the preservation of the Native American culture, which he discovered at a Sun Dance Ceremony (not unlike the pow wow dances my children and I enjoyed more than 100 years later). Curtis’ joint passion of historical preservation and photography drove him to produce, develop, and publish the 20-volume set of photography books called the North American Indian Project, begun in 1900 and completed 30 years later.
Curtis’ portraits capture what he believed to be a disappearing culture and his ability to elicit a mutual trust with his subjects (they called him Shadow Catcher) create a level of depth in the art.
The manner by which Curtis achieves this depth is another reason I, a hobby photographer who relies heavily on the convenience of digital images, found the collection amazing.
He developed “photogravure” a process so complicated I won’t attempt to describe it except to say it’s a combination of photography, engraving and printing by hand.
If you live in the area, I recommend a trip to the Trout Museum of Art to see Curtis’ collection, and a bonus display of Storytellers: Wisconsin First Nations Portraits, which is living proof that the Native American culture lives on.
Otherwise, join me in my digital quest to learn more about Edward Curtis and the culture he worked so hard to preserve.