ODE TO EDWARD CURTIS
Edward Curtis, the American photographer and ethnologist whose work focused on the American West and on Native American peoples, is one of my heroes. If I could afford it, I would dedicate a room to his work—partly because his work ethic and dedication are inspirational and partly because I share his obsession with the American West. In 1906, J. P. Morgan provided Curtis with $75,000 to produce a series on Native Americans. This work was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Morgan’s funds were to be disbursed over five years and were earmarked to support only fieldwork for the books, not for writing, editing, or production of the volumes. Curtis received no salary for the project.
There is one photograph of his that I have long had an obsession with—Canyon de Chelly—taken in 1904. His depiction of Navajos crossing the desert on horseback, their graceful silhouettes at the base of Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly, is a coveted piece of early 20th-century art and a symbol of the American West. When I was working on the South Coast of Iceland in 2018, I recognized the opportunity to pay homage to this classic photograph. There is a vast isolated rock, which is unlike any other geologic feature I have seen anywhere in the world, stranded on the volcanic black beach 10 miles east of Vík. Unsurprisingly, it has featured in movies, such as the recent Star Wars franchise.
The goal was to give a sense of scale, as Curtis had done in Arizona more than 100 years earlier. Fortunately, I was working with some Icelandic ponies anyway, so I just had to work quickly in the time available. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”