For decades, Curtis' monumental work has stood as the benchmark for images of Indians. Yet the Seattle photographer, who died in 1952, is a controversial figure. He employed such tactics as soft focus and shadowy lighting to create romantic effects. He frequently staged scenes and edited out of his prints any evidence of the time in which he was working.
Despite his manipulations, Curtis' work continues to color our impressions of Indian life. (A selection of his photographs, Native Nations, has just been published by Bullfinch Press/Little Brown & Company/Calloway Editions. The editor is Curtis expert Christopher Cardozo.)
Given Curtis' prominence, the exhibition of Indian photographs at the Temple-Tyler Galleries called "Partial Recall" is somewhat revisionist but refreshing. It not only doesn't contain a single image by Curtis (can you imagine a show about cubism without Picasso?), but it also attempts to balance the books by including work by Indian artists.
"Partial Recall" is based on a book of the same title published last year by the New Press. Conceived and edited by art historian Lucy Lippard, the book combines 100 photographs with essays by 12 American Indian writers.
Lippard selected 50 of the photographs for the show, which was organized by her and Don Desmett, Temple-Tyler gallery director. Both in the book and the exhibition, she avoided using photographs by Curtis because she wanted to cover the ground with less familiar material that she discovered while combing various archives.
"Partial Recall," which runs through Dec. 3, comes in two parts. The Tyler half of the show is almost all historical, although some of the photographs are recent. The Temple half features contemporary images by three American Indian photographers - Jolene Rickard, who also contributed an essay to the book; Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, and David Neel.
The Tyler part of the show demonstrates how white photographers frequently created outrageous and sometimes comical distortions of Indian life.
Take, for instance, an image made by H.S. Poley in 1894. A group of Ute chiefs stands before a teepee apparently listening to another chief on horseback. The setting of this staged "conference" looks like suburban California.
Subsequently Charles Craig, a painter, brushed out one group of figures, converted the cultivated background into a wilder, quasi-desert setting, and, for good measure, painted in a cooking fire and a pot. The altered photo transformed Poley's studio Indians into the "noble savages" of Curtis' imagination.
The historical images of Indian life are by turns prosaic, quirky and stirring. A group of Indian Girl Scouts cooks hot dogs on an outing near their Colorado reservation. An Indian woman has her hair set and her nails manicured in a beauty shop. A determined-looking woman named Katherine Smith holds the rifle she used "to resist relocation."
The exhibition includes the famous portrait of the Apache chief Geronimo, incongruously dressed in pants, vest and top hat, seated at the wheel of a vintage Cadillac. The Cherokee artist Jimmie Durham devotes his essay in Lippard's book to this image, which he interprets as a statement of defiance.
And there are two extraordinary photographs in the Tyler segment - extraordinary because in European terms they are so ordinary. They depict Indians in situations that, while culturally alien, manage to appear perfectly normal.
In one, two young women recline on a Victorian "fainting couch." They could be posing for the pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti. They did pose in 1910 for Frank Matsura, a Japanese photographer, in Okanogan, Wash.
They're relaxed, confident, personable. We want to know all about them, what they're thinking as they stare back at the camera. Rarely do historical photographs of Indians convey this much humanity.
The other photograph was made in 1907 in western Canada by Mary Sharples Schaffer Warren (1861-1939), a Philadelphia Quaker. It's a standard family- album snap of an Indian family - husband and wife seated on the ground, young daughter standing between them.
They are all smiling broadly. Never before have I seen a historical photograph of a smiling Indian. This suggests an unusual degree of communication and trust, and perhaps even affection, between the photographer and her subjects. A rare moment indeed.
There isn't any such bonhomie in the Temple part of the exhibition, although here is a revealing series of formal portraits by David Neel from a series called Our Chiefs and Elders.
Some of the subjects have been photographed twice - once in traditional
dress and again in what could be described as Anglo dress. The changes of costume reflect contrasting demeanors. The Anglo Catherine Adams, holding her cat, is the kindly grandmother next door. The native Adams is an imposing leader figure in full regalia, and sans cat.
The contemporary Indian photographers have taken on such politically charged issues as ethnic identity and a controversial federal law requiring Indian craftsmen to register with their tribes. These contemporary positions are light-years removed from the sideshow aesthetic of the historical portion of the show, where the Indian is portrayed as an exotic curiosity, an ''outsider" in American life.
IF YOU GO
* "Partial Recall" runs through Dec. 3 at Temple Gallery, 1619 Walnut St. and Tyler Gallery, Beech and Penrose Avenues, Elkins Park. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Telephone: 215-204-5041 (Temple) or 215-782-2776 (Tyler).