BENEATH PORTRAITS OF KOLACKY DAYS queens, early 1900s era sepia-tone photos stretch along walls and grace tables in the narrow room. Prints of images taken by a man considered one of America’s greatest photographers. Edward S. Curtis.
Despite his outstanding photographic reputation, Curtis was previously unknown to me. But no more. Recently I visited an exhibit of around 60 selected photos from his “The North American Indian” collection at the Arts and Heritage Center in Montgomery. His entire body of work encompasses 40,000 photos, many published in 20 volumes.
To see these photos, termed part of the “most complete visual record of Native Americans west of the Mississippi,” right here in rural Minnesota is such a gift. A $4,000 grant from the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation funded the exhibit in Montgomery, a community of some 3,000 just 20 miles northwest of Faribault.
Displaying Curtis’ photos here brings the photographer full circle back to Le Sueur County. At the age of five, he moved here with his parents from his native Wisconsin, eventually settling in Cordova. Here he grew up to appreciate the outdoors as he canoed with his preacher father along the Cannon River. By age 17, Curtis was working at a photography studio in St. Paul. In 1887, he moved to Seattle.
That’s the backstory of a photographer who earned the praise and financial support of President Theodore Roosevelt, who called Curtis a “close observer.” That is evident in the documentary photos of the Native Americans Curtis came to know well and to, clearly, value and love.
His portraits of western Native Americans document not only a culture, but also history and personalities. As I studied the photos, I admired faces weathered by wind and sun, steady strength in profiles, joy and sadness in eyes. I admired, too, the artistry of woven baskets, handcrafted pottery, curved canoes, feathered headdresses and detailed beadwork.
I expect if I was to revisit this exhibit, I’d notice details I missed. There’s just so much to see, to take in, to appreciate, to contemplate. A culture. A people. A way of life. A history. A connection to nature.
I am grateful to long-ago photographers like Edward Sheriff Curtis for his efforts in connecting personally with his subjects, for caring and for documenting with his camera. His work is truly remarkable.
FYI: “The North American Indian” exhibit at the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center continues until Saturday, February 29. The arts center is open from 2 – 5 pm Thursdays and Fridays and from 9 am – noon Saturdays and is located at 206 First Street North in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota.
© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling