By the early 1900s, the vanishing West was well on its way to becoming the mythical lost Eden which would occupy the popular imagination for most of the century to come, a colorfully exaggerated land of noble lawmen, daring outlaws and savage Indians. Going against this distorting grain was a young photographer named Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), who embarked on an obsessive project to document as thoroughly as possible the quickly disappearing traditional life of the Native American. Curtis was a self-made man from a poverty-stricken background whose talents lifted him to such rarified heights during America’s Gilded Age that the first volume of his massive undertaking had an introduction by Theodore Roosevelt and was partly underwritten by J. P. Morgan.
That the arch-capitalist Morgan was instrumental in creating Curtis’ celebration of the country’s poorest inhabitants is only one of the seeming contradictions in Anne Makepeace’s documentary on the photographer. Curtis comes across as someone who was sincere but realistic. He was willing to pay the Indians to re-create ceremonies which had been forbidden by the U.S. government, but also softened a Native American rendering of Little Big Horn in order not to offend the much-needed rich, white subscribers to his projected 20-volume project. He was a stickler for realistic detail who also made a bogus film about Indians hunting whales in order to raise money for his photographic expeditions. He did what he had to do, and by 1930 managed to finish the 20th book in the series — the whole thing lapsing into obscurity until there was a revived interest in Curtis in the ’70s.
This is a pretty straightforward documentary which becomes more moving as it progresses, as Curtis’ simple dedication grows to heroic proportions and as we see more and more of his incredible photographs, records of a lost time, poetic and haunted.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m.). Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].