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Photographer as salvage archaeologist: A reflection on Susan Sontag and Edward Curtis

Working on separate projects during the early 1900s, Edward Curtis and Adam Vroman both took thousands of photographic images of Indigenous groups in the United States. Edward Curtis did so with the explicit intention of documenting a “vanishing race” of people for preservation in American archives. One New York Times reviewer reflects on this project in 1908:

“The Indian is in the last stages of his tribal existence. In a few more years he will, as a separate race, have passed forever from the world’s stage.”

Photography has been used as a tool for collecting ethnographic material since its invention. However, Susan Sontag re-frames the photograph as not just a tool for documenting the past, but as an archaeological object that signifies the past. Like an ancient bowl excavated from the ground, a photograph is an “instant antique” that can be collected, interpreted, and curated in a museum. Just as salvage archaeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries collected Indigenous material culture in preparation for their apparent imminent demise, Curtis collected photographs.

The photographer turned salvage archaeologist does not simply record and collect the past for preservation, but invents it. In the same way that traditional archaeologists excavate objects and invent the interpretation of these objects’ anthropological significance in a curated exhibition, Edward Curtis curated his photographic relics in a book first published in 1907 called The North American Indian. In this book he interprets Indigenous traditions, dress, ceremonies, music, and family life. But what differs is the immediacy of the photograph. Although people engage with the photographic artifact in the same way that they would with a timeless antique excavated from the earth, the photograph is disconnected from time. It is widely known that Curtis retouched his photos to eliminate modern technology. This happened most famously in the image, In a Piegan Lodge, in which the presence of a clock is erased.

Sontag writes that people wield cameras “as a way of taking possession of the places they visit” (65). Salvage archaeologists collect antiques of the past that allow us to refer to and recall ways of life that are mysterious to us, that we are afraid might vanish if we do not preserve them. Photographs are excavated souvenirs from another person’s reality. But we must remember that photographs do not document or signify the same thing as material culture created by a person from the culture: photographs are material culture created by a visitor, a tourist in this reality.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador USA, 2001. Print.

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