Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Rethinking Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian: The Problem of Agency

Dr Shamoon Zamir.

From the 1890s to 1930 Edward S. Curtis took thousands of photographs of Native Americans and published the twenty volumes of ethnography and photography and the twenty photographic portfolios which comprise The North American Indian (1907-1930). Today Curtis is known almost exclusively as a photographer trapped in a nostalgia for ‘the vanishing race’. This paper attempts to read Curtis against the grain of such critiques by foregrounding the interaction of images and text in his work and by also suggesting that a different understanding of the work may emerge if we treat the photographed Native Americans not simply as subjects or victims but also, to some extent, as active participants in Curtis’s project. My work is concerned with the ways in which an examination of Curtis’s use of an interplay of text and image contributes to a reconsideration of the development of early American anthropology and, simultaneously, to a critique of contemporary accounts of discourses of cross-cultural representation.


Dr Shamoon Zamir  (United Kingdom)
Reader in American Studies
Department of American Studies
King's College London

Shamoon Zamir taught American literature and culture at the University of Chicago and at York University before joining King's College in 1993. His publications include DARK VOICES: W.E.B. DU BOIS AND AMERICAN THOUGHT (1995), articles on African American and Native American literatures, and on literature and anthropology. He has also translated fiction from Urdu. He is currently working on a book on photography, literature and Native American culture and on a study of Zora Neale Hurston and anthropology.

  • Native Americans
  • Photography
  • Anthropology
  • Representation
  • Text and image
Person as Subject
  • Curtis, Edward S.

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)