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Edward S. Curtis: The Women    by Christopher Cardozo order for
Edward S. Curtis
by Christopher Cardozo
Order:  USA  Can
Bulfinch, 2005 (2005)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The American Indian women in Edward S. Curtis's outstanding photographs all look like they have something to say, that they are about to reach through time and speak to the reader. Indeed, in her Foreword, Louise Erdrich says they make her feel as if 'I am looking at the women through a window'. She also tells us that 'Loss trembles in the background' since the children portrayed were soon taken away to boarding schools run by the U.S. government.

In her essay, Anne Makepeace (who made a documentary about the photographer) speaks of Edward Curtis' first photograph of Indians, that of Kickisomlo ('Princess Angeline'), daughter of the great chief Seattle, in 1899. Curtis inspired trust in his subjects, saying 'I worked with them not at them.' Makepeace tells us that Curtis' 'vision of a passing world' consumed him, and that he traveled extensively for three decades, photographing and recording over eighty tribes. Some descendants of his subjects have since used his work as a source of information to carry on tribal traditions.

Christopher Cardozo's essay explores Curtis' life (1868-1952) in the context of the times. Cardozo calls the photographer a 'renaissance man' who loved the outdoors and created, despite enormous obstacles 'a unique record of the American Indian that may well endure for centuries to come.' The full-page plates he has selected are interspersed with lyrical quotes, like the Crowfoot 'What is life? / It is the flash of a firefly in the night' and from Mohawk Lorraine Canoe, 'When men begin to understand the relationships of the universe that women have always known, the world will begin to change for the better.'

We see American Indian women (from the Southwest Desert to the Northwest Coast) in close-ups, with children, gathering wood or rushes, preparing food, crafting and carrying pots, weaving blankets, carrying on daily activities. The butterfly whorl hairstyles are dramatic - and though those of these Hopi ladies are looser, I wonder if Princess Leia of Star Wars based her hairdo on theirs. Some women (especially a shaman) look confident, while elders often look suspicious or angry. Some are resigned, some resolute, some pensive. There is a mysterious quality to the smile of the young woman in the cover photo - it makes you wonder what's on her mind.

This beautiful collection conveys a sense of living in the outdoors (summer and winter), as opposed to our own society's insulation from it. The photographs reflect a continuity of traditions and show women wearing their age honestly. Edward S. Curtis: The Women opens a window through time to vital communities and the women who were at their hearts.

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