Picks and Pans Review: The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions

updated 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Christopher M. Lyman

In 1930 photographer Edward S. Curtis finished the 20th and last volume of The North American Indian, a project that took him 30 years to complete. The set sold for $3,500 then, and now fetches upwards of $70,000. He came to be regarded as a great photographer (the examples of his work in this book clearly show he was) and also a serious historian of the American Indian. That he was not, argues Lyman, himself a photographer. In Curtis' zeal to capture what he believed to be traditional Indian traits, he staged dramatic shots of "warriors" on horseback, retouched his pictures to remove modern objects such as parasols and clocks, and even used props, including a feather headdress, to dress Indians who in real life wore European-style clothes. His judgments were often based on stereotypes and racism (he said of the Mohave, for example: "Mentally, they are dull and slow—brothers to the ox"). Many of Curtis' images are still striking, but the only real history his photographs captured was the sad one of white America's conflicted passions, romanticizing the Indian on one hand, demeaning him on the other. (Pantheon, $14.95)

From Our Partners