There’s just no escaping Edward Curtis. The hundreds of photographs he made of early 20th century Native Americans in his 20-volume opus The North American Indian helped define our idea of what it means to be an Indian. Google “American Indian,” and a handful of Curtis photographs will be among the first images that pop up.
In Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy, which runs through May 8 at the Portland Art Museum, three contemporary native photographers add their own vision to Curtis’ powerful, romanticized, and sometimes historically inaccurate photos, which he often posed in an effort to recreate what he saw as a vanishing culture. I don’t know that this exhibit adds anything new to the question of evaluating Curtis’ huge body of work, which has been much discussed and criticized over the past century. But the photographs here by Wendy Red Star, Zig Jackson and Will Wilson are smart, engaging, and fun — and entirely worth a trip up I-5 to see them.
Portland artist Wendy Red Star grew up on the Crow Reservation in Montana. Her work reacts to two aspects of Curtis’ photos: first, he photographed few women, and second, his black and white photographs necessarily missed the opulent color of traditional Crow costumes. An enormous color self portrait with her daughter tackles both issues head on; she also invites people to add their own color, using colored pencil, to some reproduced Curtis images.
Zig Jackson’s work may be the funniest here. A native of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara descent, Jackson — who goes by the name Rising Buffalo — addresses the condescension of the dominant white culture to natives in a variety of ways, through series such as Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian and through his series of photos set in Zig’s Indian Reservation. His work is sharp without being sardonic, and it capture some of the sadness that Curtis was trying to record in his photographs of a vanishing race.
Will Wilson, a Diné photographer who grew up in the Navajo Nation, is more directly a successor to Curtis’ work. Wilson uses old photographic methods such as wet plate and tintype to create portraits of contemporary natives, sometimes in an environment he calls beautifully toxic.