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Month: September 2008

Cowboy Curtis

I recently wrote another close reading of an image for Smithsonian Magazine (published in the spring, when I’ll post it).  I looked at a Western landscape and compared it to this famous image by Edward Curtis.  This 1904 photograph of Canyon de Chelly, one of the oldest inhabited sites in North America, reveals Curtis’s technical prowess in composing sharply detailed landscapes from a great distance.  The horizontal lines evoke the long timelines of Western landscapes, where time is marked by ancient rock formations and people riding through vast deserted country.  But the scale is human too: the mountain face echoes the craggy, monumental portraits Curtis made of Red Cloud and other famous Native American chiefs.  Man and mountain are aligned here, both represented in the photograph as vertical lines reaching toward the heavens.  Positioning his camera between flat ground and open sky, Curtis “shoots” the Navajo riders to remind us of timeless struggles between man and nature as well as the “Cowboys and Indians” in our national history.