by Shamoon Zamir. University of North Carolina Press, August 2014. 352p. ill. ISBN 9781469611754 (cl.), $39.95.
Reviewed November 2014
Laura Graveline, Visual Arts Librarian, Sherman Art Library, Dartmouth College, email@example.com
It is almost impossible to hold an image to a single fixed meaning. Every individual gazing at an image cannot help but read it in the light of his or her own experience and knowledge. The images of Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian hold an iconic place in our minds. Yet they are also viewed under the weight of time, which brings judgments and interpretations of the work in relation to contemporary scholarship and ethics.
Curtis's work, when viewed with a contemporary eye, has been criticized for what is seen as his manipulation of the images. Indeed Curtis's work is wrought with tensions. It purports to be an ethnographic documentary on one side, but used the most beautiful, time consuming and expensive printing method, photogravure, for the individual plates. Curtis valiantly attempted to document the traditional life of the Native American nations he visited, but this documentation required staging and also employed careful composition.
In The Gift of the Face, Shamoon Zamir creates a convincing and fascinating reassessment of Curtis's work. Choosing only a select few of Curtis's photogravures, Zamir conducts a close reading of these works, in the context of the cultural crisis and loss of self that the Native Americans were experiencing. Zamir presents a thesis that the Native Americans Curtis photographed understood what the photographs could achieve, and that they may have wanted to document their way of life and collaborated on how they were depicted. In some instances, Zamir views these images as, "a form of indirect self-portraiture."
The argument Zamir crafts focuses on the interpretation of Curtis as someone who was struggling to engage not just with Native Americans during this time of profound cultural crisis, but also to engage with the concept of cultural crisis itself. Zamir contends that a full understanding of Curtis' achievement with The North American Indian can only be realized when his subjects are viewed as collaborators.
Shamoon Zamir's brilliant new interpretations of these images provides an important and significant new contribution to the scholarship of Native American studies, and also to anthropology, American history, photography, and the study of visual culture. The book is well illustrated, and while providing important new scholarship for specialists, will have great appeal to general readers.