Monday, August 11, 2014

The Noisy Triumph of Civilization

A month or so ago I spent some time with friends in Colorado. While I was there I stopped at a museum store at an old fort where Kit Carson had spent some time, and in the bookstore I found a book called Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides, which tells "The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West." That led me to into a kind of informal and intermittent research project, one thing leading to another. I read A.B. Guthrie's novel of frontier life among the Indians, The Big Sky.  I read Evan Connell's nonfiction compilation on the life of George Custer, Son of the Morning Star, and then happened upon another terrific book by Timothy Egan called Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, a riveting and terrifically well-written biography of American photographer Edward Curtis, whose life work in 20 volumes, The North American Indian, attempted to document by means of photographs the lives of Native American tribes at the time when they were being systematically wiped out by expansionist American settlers, the government, and its military arm, led by the likes of Carson and Custer. Curtis never got any recognition or monetary reward for completing his project, and fell into (what I feel to be unconscionable) critical disfavor in the 20th century. There's more going on in my mind as I consider these readings, and others I have been doing along the same lines, than I can ever hope to unpack here. But this is all by way of introducing the material to follow, as a sort of elaborated commonplace book entry.

The other day in the local library I happened upon a book by Martha Sandweiss called Print the Legend, which surveys the entire history of the United States insofar as it has been captured photographically. Sandweiss has some very interesting things to say about photographs as historic artifacts. This, for example:

The overwhelming majority of nineteenth-century American photographs were portraits, the vast majority made for the sitters themselves. At first, such portraits were private documents, owned, controlled, and interpreted by the people who had paid to have them made. But with the exception of carefully identified celebrity portraits or pictures labeled by forward-looking family members, these pictures quickly lost their capacity to narrate specific stories. As unidentified portraits in an attic trunk or unlabeled pictures in a flea market stall, they are now simply portraits of strangers, pictures that can evoke much but tell little. They may document the material culture of a particular era, the prevailing styles of dress or architecture, but they are incapable of describing in any comprehensive way virtually anything about the circumstances of their production, the ambitions of the sitters, the uses to which they were once put. They are the frayed fragments of a story, stray anecdotes or footloose characters in search of a plot that would give them purpose and meaning. Without the personal link they once had to their subjects, such portraits remain astonishingly specific and agonizingly vague, full of information and time-bound stories beyond all recovering. They speak to an absence as much as a presence. (216)

As one who has spent a fair amount of time in antique stores and flea markets looking for photographs to use in my collages, I can attest to first hand knowledge of the various ways in which the placement of a photograph in ANY unfamiliar context can, will, must suggest a story other than whatever story the photograph was originally intended to tell. Photographs give us information that raises questions that are ultimately not answerable, or rather, answerable only in purely hypothetical ways delimited by the perspective of the individual viewer. This picture by Curtis would be an interesting test case, were we to try, as an experiment, asking what it is a picture of and how we might best read it:

Answers, as the old test rubrics say, will vary. Or, as Sandweiss says more eloquently,

…when [a picture] ceases to be a private picture and becomes a public one, when it passes into the hands of others or loses its identification as the likeness of a particular person, a photographic portrait can be used to tell or illustrate any number of stories. "Brother Jack" might become an archetypal forty-niner; a favorite uncle might be transformed into an unnamed member of a vanishing race. For all the specificity of the visual information contained within a photographic portrait, such pictures always have the latent power to slip the bonds of biographical explicitness and to assume more metaphorical meanings in the eyes of a beholder. The portrait that once  memorialized a personal, private moment is easily reimagined as a public commodity, the record of a specific historical event reembraced as an ahistorical visual metaphor. (215)

With specific regard to photographs documenting the history of the settling of the West and the accompanying devastation of Native American culture, she has this to say:

In the story woven with and around the survey's landscape photographs, the West seemed a place that scarcely had a past; its meaning and importance lay in the future, in its potential as a site of natural wealth and spiritual renewal for the American nation. Such a transcendent, forward-looking narrative depended upon the imaginative erasure of the lands native inhabitants whose very presence challenged the notion of the West as an empty and available landscape, and whose different ways of life challenged the moral righteousness of other American systems of land use and settlement. This progressive narrative of settlement supported by the landscape photographers coexisted in a kind of unexamined intimacy with the parallel narrative of decline supported by photographs of the native peoples and their worlds. If decisive action implicitly animated and made possible the narrative of settlement and expansion, the parallel tale of the vanishing race was curiously, if necessarily, passive story that hinged upon the inevitability of Indian decline. Native people would disappear through the machinations of fate—not warfare, legal chicanery, competition for scant resources, or economic exploitation. With the quiet waning of savagery would come the noisy triumph of civilization. (250-1)

I can't claim to have any particular expertise in any of this. Basically, I'm just an interested bystander at this point. I want to find out more, and I've got a number of other texts lined up and waiting to go. But I'm impressed with what Sandweiss has to say. I can't prove that her damaging characterization of the narrative structures by which we as Americans have exculpated ourselves from responsibility from our actions is "true," but intuitively it feels absolutely correct to me. For further evidence that not much has changed, one need only pick up the papers, any day of any week, and see where we are today.

Picture credit: "Crow's Heart, Mandan" by Edward S. Curtis - Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -,_Mandan.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Crow_s_heart,_Mandan.JPG

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