Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Coming To Light: Edward S. Curtis

Trailer for 'Coming To Light' 

 In 1895 Curtis met & photographed Princess Angeline, (c. 1800–1896), the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. This was to be his first portrait of a Native American. Two of his original images were taken of her clamming at the age of 85 on the Puget Sound.

In that same year while photographing Mt. Rainer, Curtis came upon a group of scientists, one of whom was George Grinnel, an expert on Native Americans. Curtis was appointed as the Official Photographer of the Grinnell Alaskan Expedition of 1899 where Grimmel became interested in Curtis' photography & invited him to join another expedition to photograph the Blackfeet Indians of Montana in 1900. Consequently after seeing his work, J.P. Morgan provided Curtis with $75,000 to produce a series of 20 volumes on the North American Indians to include 1,500 photographs. Morgan's funds were to be disbursed over five years & were earmarked to support ONLY field- work for the books, not for writing, editing, or producing the volumes. Curtis received no salary for the project, which lasted over 20 years. 

Over 200 complete sets were eventually published. Curtis' goal had been to not just photograph, but to document as much Native American traditional life as possible before their way of life disappeared. "The information that is to be gathered, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost." Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian language, music & took over 40,000 photographic images of over 80 tribes. He recorded tribal lore, history & described traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies & funeral customs. He wrote biographical sketches of tribal leaders & his material, in most cases, is the only recorded history left.

His work, of course, was not without controversy. Curtis paid natives to pose as warriors at a time when they lived with little dignity, rights or freedom. It is suggested that he altered & manipulated his pictures to create an ethnographic simulation of Native tribes untouched by Western society. It is doubtful that Curtis did this intentionally to mislead, considering his lifelong diligence to this art. His obvious intention was to showcase the American Indian, 'in their own element', as accurately as possible & applied costuming & posing of the Native Americans with idealism beyond his actual intention of realism, albeit euphemistic.

 In 1892 Edward married Clara J. Phillips, (1874–1932) & yogether they had four children: Harold, Elizabeth, Florence & Katherine. In 1896 the family moved to a new house in Seattle where the household also included Edward's mother, sister & brother, & Clara's two sisters. During the years of work on the "North American Indian" Curtis was often absent from home for most of the year, leaving Clara to manage the children & studio by herself. After several years of estrangement, Clara filed for divorce in 1919 & received the Curtis' Studio & his original negatives as her part of the settlement. Edward went with his daughter, Beth, to the studio & destroyed all of his original glass negatives. Clara went on to manage the Curtis studio with her sister Nellie & the two oldest daughters remained in Seattle, living in a boarding house. Their youngest daughter, Katherine, moved to Kitsap County WA & Curtis became a gold prospector in California.

On October 19, 1952, age 84, Curtis died of a heart attack in the home of his daughter Beth in CA, where he is buried. A terse obituary appeared in The New York Times on October 20, 1952:  

Edward S. Curtis, internationally known authority on the history of the North American Indian, died today at the age of 84. Mr. Curtis devoted his life to compiling Indian history. His research was done under the patronage of the late financier, J.P Morgan. The forward for the monumental set of Curtis books was written by President Roosevelt. Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Sessions: A Poetic Sex Movie

I recently saw 'The Sessions'  which is a phenomenal movie about Mark O'Brien who contracted polio at six years of age & woke up from a coma in an iron lung where he lived most of his life up until he died at age 39. He also attended Berkley to study English & journalism, became a hard hitting activist for the disabled, & as profiled in this movie, visited a sex surrogate at one point to see what it felt like to have sex. I thought it might be some weirdo voyeuristic porn flick, but it actually is anything but, is very well done & quite inspiring to boot!


A Documentary about the REAL O'Brien for  $1.99 on Amazon Instant Video:


Mark O'Brien & his girlfriend, Susan Fernbach, cuddle outside his iron lung at his apartment in Berkeley in 1997. They were partners from 1995 until his death in 1999.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Gold Tablecloth

Excerpted from Reader's Digest, December 1954 
By Rev. Howard C. Schade

A young pastor & his wife came to serve in a very old church that had once flourished with many members. It was now run down, in awful shape & worse yet, in late December a severe storm blew in, ripping a huge piece of rain soaked plaster from the inside wall behind the altar, just two days before Christmas.

That afternoon the dispirited couple attended a benefit auction for a youth group. At one point the auctioneer opened an old box & shook out a gold tablecloth that looked to be nearly fifteen feet long! The pastor had the winning bid of $6.50 & brought it back to the church, tacking it up to cover the hole behind the altar.

Just before noon on Christmas Eve, the pastor noticed a woman standing in the cold across the street from the church, waiting for a bus. Knowing that it wouldn't come for another forty minutes, he called out, motioning her to come inside & wait. She told him about her disapointment of interviewing for a job as a nanny to a wealthy family, who hadn't hired her because of her imperfect English as a war refuge.

She sat down in a pew & watched as the pastor adjusted the tablecloth behind the altar & suddenly was standing right beside him. "This is mine! It's my banquet cloth!" she exclaimed, as she showed him the monogrammed initials on the corner. "My husband had this made for me in Brussels before the war!" She explained that her & her husband had opposed the Nazi's & decided they must leave Vienna, Austria where they were living. She went ahead to Switzerland as her husband arranged to have their household goods shipped across the border. She never saw him again & heard that he died in a concentration camp while trying to follow her to Switzerland.

She shared that she had always felt guilty that she got away while he hadn't & ended up immigrating to the U.S. to escape her past & make a new start. The paster tried to comfort her by urging her to take the cloth with her, but she refused & wandered away.

That night, on Christmas Eve, it became clear the that beautifully made tablecloth was a success as it shown in the warm glow of the candlelight. After the service many people complimented the pastor for his choice, including a local clock repairman. "You know many years ago my wife & I owned a very similar cloth!" & as he smiled as he said she would only use it when the bishop came to dinner.

The pastor suddenly became very animated as he sputtered out the story of the woman who had been in the church that morning. The startled jeweler clutched at his arm. "Could it be? Does she live?" The pastor soon managed to get in touch with the family who had interviewed the woman & as the sun rose up on Christmas morning, the reunited couple wept after nearly 10 years of thinking the other had been lost to them during the war.