Step off the third-floor elevator at the Figge Art Museum, and the first thing you see is a photograph of six American Indians on horseback riding away from the photographer, becoming more indistinct the farther away they ride.

Titled "The Vanishing Race," this photo made in 1904 by Edward S. Curtis is a visual metaphor of a culture vanishing. It also is his signature piece.

Above the photo is a plea that Curtis wrote at the time he was seeking financial backing for his ultimately successful proposal to document the North American Indian with photographs and interviews.

"The passing of every man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other; consequently the information ... must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time," Curtis wrote.

If you have any interest in history, photography, art or Native American culture, you need to see the 100 Masterworks of Edward S. Curtis, now on display at the Figge, Davenport.

In fact, you've probably already seen some of the images, you just didn't know it.

Many of Curtis' photos have been so widely reproduced that they form our idea of what Indians living west of the Mississippi River looked like before their lives and culture were devastated by contact with European civilization.

If Curtis (1868-1952) hadn't taken these pictures when he did — from 1900 to 1930  when native culture still was intact in parts of the Plains, Southwest and Northwest — these images would have been lost forever.

In total, Curtis produced about 40,000 negatives of about 80 distinct tribes. People who have studied Curtis believe he worked with 10,000 people, representing perhaps the largest participatory project in history.

The 100 photos at the Figge are from the private collection of Christopher G. Cardozo, of Minneapolis, organized by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography.

As you turn into the main gallery, you become aware of the sound of Native American music in the background recorded by the Smithsonian Institution, curator Andrew Wallace explained.

The first set of pictures are of Hopi, Navajo and Apache living in Arizona and New Mexico.

Particularly striking is "Canyon de Chelly," showing six men on horseback and a dog riding in the shadow of a huge rock formation. They are insignificant in relation to nature.

We see Zuni bread makers (round tortilla-like bread, not loaves), Santa Clara pottery burners and a Navajo blanket weaver sitting before a huge loom.

Some photos show Indians in ceremonial dress, indicating that Curtis had earned their trust.

As you wander the gallery Curtis' lens moves to the Plains and there is the famous photo titled "An Oasis in the Badlands." It depicts the Indian named Red Hawk wearing a full war bonnet of eagle feathers, a beaded and fringed war shirt, beaded leggings and moccasins, seated on a white stallion that is drinking from a small pond.

Throughout the Plains photos there are large expanses of land and sky, horses, lodges and an inside look at ceremonies.

The final area of the exhibit contains photos of Indians of the Pacific Northwest with images of totem poles.

The photos were taken for a 20-volume book project called "The North American Indian" financed by J. Pierpont Morgan. In 1911, the New York Herald proclaimed it "the most gigantic undertaking since the publication of the King James edition of the Bible."

Curtis was acclaimed at the time, but when he died in 1952 at age 85, he was penniless and unknown.

A revival of his work began in the 1970s with the convergence of interest in the environment, photography as an art form and the American Indian Movement, Wallace said.

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