Travel: Tracing the path of Edward Curtis through Indian Country

Cliff-perched Acoma (1904) by Edward S. Curtis. Image from Library of Congress

Photographer Edward S. Curtis thought he was capturing a "vanishing race" when he set off for a mission to the American West in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The New York Times visits Acoma Pueblo and the Navajo Nation to see what's changed:
A wind knifed high across the desert, bounded up and over the mesa top and side-winded through the alleys of Acoma Pueblo, pummeling us. We shuffled toward the centuries-old San Estevan del Rey Mission Church, whose portals lay mercifully open. Acoma, also known as Sky City, sits atop a 367-foot-high sandstone bluff in western New Mexico, and is utterly exposed to the elements. A bunch of us had come up from the Sky City Cultural Center, 30 tourists clinging to one another’s sleeves, angling our torsos into the wind. At one point I was almost horizontal as I clenched an older woman’s hand, hanging on for dear life.

Despite its desert gales, Acoma remains one of the oldest continually inhabited communities in North America, still occupied by a dozen or so families, descendants of Anasazi Indians who built a formidable redoubt here in the 12th century and who liked their views unobstructed. In every direction, reddish-brown tableland sprawled to the horizon, broken here and there by pinyon-juniper forest. Far to the north rolled the dark humps of the San Mateo Mountains.

It was this dramatic setting that drew the photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis here in 1904. Then 36 and prodigiously mustachioed, Curtis was one of the most famous photographers of his day. He spent several mornings lugging his tripod camera and delicate glass-plate negatives among these windswept crags, all to capture Acoma in its crumbling glory. “Cliff-Perched Acoma” shows the Mission Church from afar, an oatmeal-colored slab melting into the rock face, with the Enchanted Mesa soaring in the distance.

Built by Puebloans in the 1600s, the church is a beautiful pile of adobe and ponderosa pine with five-foot-thick walls, and looks today pretty much as it did 100 years ago. In another shot, “At the Old Well of Acoma,” a pair of women gather water from a cistern, their faces half-hidden, their dark forms vanishing into the stone behind them. The two pictures represent the major strands of vintage Curtis photography: soft, intimate portraiture and big, brassy landscape.

Get the Story:
John O'Connor: Photographer Edward S. Curtis’s Southwest (The New York Times 6/7)

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