Over a hundred years ago, the American photographer Edward Sherriff Curtis (Wisconsin, 1868) set out on his great quest to discover the original face of America: in just over thirty years he produced 40,000 photographs portraying Indians from some eighty different tribes which had occupied the western parts of the Mississippi river basin since ancient times. He believed he had a mission to safeguard the ‘sacred legacy’ of his nation by preserving the vanishing traditions and customs of the Native Americans in words and pictures. The Hague Museum of Photography has now succeeded in bringing to the Netherlands one of the most superb private collections of fine quality Curtis photographs. The Cardozo Collection comprises around 120 rare platinum and gold prints acquired since the 1970s by Christopher Cardozo (1948), a photographer, lawyer and leading Curtis expert from Minnesota.

This exhibition will be arranged on the basis of five geographical areas – The Great Plains, California, The Southwest, The Plateau and Woodlands, and The Northwest and Alaska – and four themes: spiritual life, ceremonial, art, and daily life. The hundred-plus photographs on display will convey a clear impression of Edward S. Curtis’ sincere ambition to record for posterity the various Indian tribes in all their dignity and grandeur. Some critics still blame Curtis for the fact that this emphasis on the aesthetic and historically romantic aspect of the Indian Nations led him to ignore their actual misery as an oppressed minority in the America of his day. They forget, however, that Curtis was working in a monumental, purely pictorial nineteenth-century tradition, which survived until around 1930 with little influence from the emerging New Photography movement, with its more engaged and journalistic view of social relationships. Edward S. Curtis approached his project with an almost maniacal ambition and managed to complete a twenty-volume standard reference work entitled The North American Indian (1907-1930). Although this account of his life’s work was published in a print run of only 257 copies, it is still regarded as one of the most remarkable achievements in the history both of photography and of modern anthropology. The photographer himself paid for his idealism and sense of mission with bankruptcy, destitution and ill-health. It was not until the 1970s that his ‘magnum opus’ was rediscovered and, even today, his work still enjoys a growing reputation. This exhibition will be complemented by a display of photographs taken by press photographer Michelle Vignes over the last 35 years, showing the Indians’ struggle for self-determination and their daily lives on the reservations. The exhibition is accompanied by an English-language catalogue entitled ‘Sacred Legacy’, containing reproductions of 200 photographs and essays by C. Cardozo, Joseph E. Horse Capture and Anne Makepeace. Published by Simon & Schuster, New York-London; ISBN 0-7432-0374-7 (price € 39.50).This exhibition is sponsored by the United States Embassy in The Hague.

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