The Gift of the Face

Portraiture and Time in Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian

By Shamoon Zamir

352 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 10 color plates., 49 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-5911-4
    Published: February 2020
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-1175-4
    Published: August 2014
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-1176-1
    Published: August 2014
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-4475-0
    Published: August 2014

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Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian is the most ambitious photographic and ethnographic record of Native American cultures ever produced. Published between 1907 and 1930 as a series of twenty volumes and portfolios, the work contains more than two thousand photographs intended to document the traditional culture of every Native American tribe west of the Mississippi. Many critics have claimed that Curtis's images present Native peoples as a "vanishing race," hiding both their engagement with modernity and the history of colonial violence. But in this major reappraisal of Curtis's work, Shamoon Zamir argues instead that Curtis's photography engages meaningfully with the crisis of culture and selfhood brought on by the dramatic transformations of Native societies. This crisis is captured profoundly, and with remarkable empathy, in Curtis's images of the human face. Zamir also contends that we can fully understand this achievement only if we think of Curtis's Native subjects as coauthors of his project.

This radical reassessment is presented as a series of close readings that explore the relationship of aesthetics and ethics in photography. Zamir's richly illustrated study resituates Curtis's work in Native American studies and in the histories of photography and visual anthropology.

About the Author

Shamoon Zamir is Professor of Literature and Art History at New York University Abu Dhabi.

For more information about Shamoon Zamir, visit the Author Page.


“[Zamir’s] analysis is often novel and compelling.”--Journal of American History

"Insightful and persuasive…a valuable contribution to several disciplines."--Native American and Indigenous Studies

"An important and significant new contribution to the scholarship of Native American studies, and also to anthropology, American history, photography, and the study of visual culture." --ARLIS/NA Reviews

“Bold and original.”--Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

”The consistent presence of Native agency is brought stunningly to light by Zamir's often brilliant analyses. Against an all-too-frequent nihilism in postcolonial studies, Zamir offers a more nuanced pathway to reassessing Curtis's monumental achievement-however flawed ethically and ethnographically it may be-in the history of intercultural interpretation.”-- Peter M. Whiteley, American Museum of Natural History, New York, in Dialectical Anthropology

"Well researched, convincingly argued, and elegantly written, The Gift of the Face constitutes a remarkable achievement and a highly significant contribution to Native American studies and visual cultural studies."--Shari Huhndorf, University of California, Berkeley