Performing Archive: Digitizing and Contextualizing Edward S. Curtis Photographs

Performing Archive: Edward S. Curtis + “the vanishing race” is the result of a three-month pilot project undertaken by the Claremont Center for Digital Humanities. The project is focused on the well known and controversial collection of photographs of Indigenous communities and people that were created by Edward S. Curtis in the early 20th Century.  Curtis is perhaps most known for his published work The North American Indian and for his work photographing Indigenous people because of his belief that they were a “vanishing race.”

The use of Curtis’ photographs is currently controversial because of the context behind them – they are representative of colonial relationships, often very staged, and representative of a fundamental lack of understanding of the communities they portray. As the Performing Archive essay “Vanishing Race and Canon de Chelly” by Ken Gonzales-Day notes “In many cases Curtis encouraged his models to stage, restage, or perform dances or ceremonies out of season and out of context, but Curtis believed that performing for the camera could serve as a way of preserving cultural traditions while there was still a living memory of them. The staged images were often paired with titles created by Curtis which further emphasized his perspective of Indigenous communities as vanishing and as ‘others.’

The Performing Archive initiative digitally brings together archival material relating to Curtis from Claremont Colleges Honnold-Mudd Library Special Collections, Northwestern University, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian by way of the Digital Public Library of America, and the University of Indiana Bloomington Archives of Traditional Music. The project brings together “nearly 2,500 items related to Curtis and his ethnographic and photographic work with western American and Canadian tribes” and also “brings together a number of new scholarly works designed to facilitate teaching with Curtis’ work.”

I think it is crucial to note that the Performing Archive aims to contextualize Curtis’ images and to present them in a way that critically engages with the context of the creation, preservation, and current day usage.  The site aims to unpack the relationships of authority in the images and provides critical essays to critically engage students and casual viewers who come across the content.  The essays written by Ken Gonzales-Day unpacking the creation and use specific images are extremely well done and insightful.  However, I do worry about viewers skipping this important part of the website and diving headfirst into the images without that important piece of context.  That being said the site navigation is setup in such a way that the introduction and critical essays are displayed first making it more likely that visitors will engage with that material prior to simply searching for photographs.

I also really enjoyed the sections of the site which examined the archival and visualization implications of Curtis’ images and the digitization of these works.  The project has also looked into using data analysis and data visualizations to examine the relationships between photographs and the communities the represent.  In the site essay “Conclusion: The Archive and the Technology of Race” David J. Kim notes that “The approach we have taken with the network representation of Curtis’ images and his social network is an attempt to unveil the history of visual documentation as technology of establishing the “what of” and the “knowing” of, or the essence of, Native Americans, as well as the history of how the scientific discourse of race has made the category of Native Americans archivable and archived in the early twentieth century.”  Performing Archive does an excellent job of critically examining and exploring it’s own processes and the cultural implications of these approaches to Curtis’ work.

This is a hugely interesting project and I’m amazed at how much material is here considering it was developed out of a three month pilot project.  I also think that this is a crucial work examining the historically context around colonial photography from archival and historical perspectives.  One red flag for me about the project was that the section on partnerships with Indigenous communities was very limited.  By the sounds of it there is plans that this part of the initiative will grow, and I really hope it does as working with the Indigenous communities represented in the photographs is hugely important.  Similarly I’m always slightly uncomfortable seeing Curtis’ images published anywhere – be they in a book or on a website – I think the contextualization done by Performing Archive mitigates that somewhat but without Indigenous community support this initiative has the potential to repeat colonial relationship structures.