Most people have not heard of Edward Curtis, which is a shame. This man, who lived from 1868 – 1952, made it his life’s mission to capture as much of the various Native American cultures as he could. He did this through photography, writing, sound recordings and early film. This was his obsession and it carried great personal and financial cost.
In 1895, Curtis owner of a Seattle portrait studio, took his first portrait of a Native American—Princess Angeline, the eldest daughter of Chief Seattle of the Duwamish tribe. Then in 1898, Curtis had a chance meeting that set him on the path away from his studio and his family. While photographing Mt. Rainier he met a group of prominent scientists who were lost. The anthropologist George Bird Grinnell, an expert on Native American cultures, was among them. The two became fast friends and the relationship led to the young photographer’s appointment as official photographer for the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899. Grinnell later asked him to come on a visit to the Piegan Blackfeet in Montana the following year, Curtis capitalized on the opportunity.
He instantly realized what he was seeing; not poor beggars, or heathens needing to be saved, but a once proud and majestic race of people being systematically destroyed by the government. He saw an opportunity for an anthropological undertaking, the likes of which had never been seen before and he also understood, all too well, that time was not on his side.
Through leveraging influential friends and acquaintances, including president Teddy Roosevelt, Curtis got an audience with JP Morgan, who he sold on his idea of a 20 volume compendium of the Native American cultures. Morgan agreed to partial funding and Curtis agreed to fund the balance with subscription sales. He was so passionate about this work, he took no salary personally.
Nicknamed the “Shadow Catcher” by his Native American subjects, his initial mission was to be an unbiased observer, there just to record the culture, but as he became intimate with the various nations, he transformed into an outspoken advocate for the people he studied.
After 30 years, a bitter divorce and penniless, his 20 volume masterpiece was complete and received great critical acclaim. His work was described as “the most ambitious enterprise in publishing since the production of the King James Bible."
Curtis insisted on using the best photographic process and the finest materials for publishing, which drove the costs up. In 1906, original subscriptions were $5,000 a set, with limited numbers to be published. As the expedition costs mounted and funds ran dry, Curtis pulled out all the stops to find buyers or backers. Unfortunately for Curtis, the “wild west” and “Indians” fell out of fashion and then the bottom fell out with the stock market crash. Suddenly, his pet project was not very important to his influential friends.
In 1930, with almost no fanfare, Curtis publishes the final two volumes of The North American Indian. It has been estimated that during the production of The North American Indian Curtis had made over 40,000 photographs, some 10,000 wax cylinder sound recordings of Indian speech and music, from over 80 tribes and made at least 125 trips by train, back and forth across the country. Having completed thirty years of exhaustive and unending field work, Curtis suffered a complete physical breakdown and checked himself into the New Rocky Mountain Hospital near Denver, Colorado.
There has been criticism of Curtis for “staging” his work, as to seem more authentic, In fact, one of the more infamous examples, shows an alarm clock removed from a final print.
Curtis watched as these peoples, traditions and languages quickly disappeared. He saw Indian children sent to boarding schools, hair cut off and banned from speaking their own language. He knew, in a culture of only spoken history, cultural extinction was only one generation away. Therefore, he felt it was important to capture as much as he could for posterity, even if that meant dressing up and pretending to do the ceremonies.
Because of his tireless work, many Native American cultures today can rediscover traditions and ceremonies that would have been otherwise lost to time. His work is not only amazing photography, but an important time capsule of proud rich cultures who would have been otherwise lost to forever.
Shop digitally enhanced Edward S. Curtis framed prints here.