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Edward Curtis – Frontier Photographer, Artist and Adventurer

Edward Curtis

Edward Curtis, self portrait, ca. 1910

Edward Curtis, self portrait, ca. 1910

February 16 is the birthday of Edward Curtis – American frontier photographer and ethnologist, who became best-known for his epic work The North American Indian, produced between 1907 and 1930 (Crystal Bridges owns a complete set consisting of 20 textbooks and 20 portfolios with 720 photogravures.) Curtis was born near Whitewater, Wisconsin, in 1868. In 1880, the family moved to Cordova Township, Minnesota, where his father, Johnson Curtis, worked as a grocer and part-time preacher. Johnson often took Edward with him on his ministerial trips in remote areas in southeastern Minnesota. During these journeys Edward gained a love of the outdoors and learned woodsmanship skills that would serve him well during his photography field trips later in his career.

Edward Curtis "Chief's party Qagyuhl"

Edward Curtis
“Chief’s party Qagyuhl”

Photography was a new and exciting science in post-Civil War America, and Curtis built his first camera when he was only twelve years old, based on instructions from a borrowed book, using a stereopticon lens his father brought home from the Civil War. The camera produced poor-quality images; however it allowed him to dream of a future life as a photographer. His early interest in American Indians was based on stories he heard of the 1862 Minnesota Indian Massacre (part of the Dakota War of 1862). In 1887 Curtis moved to Washington Territory, and four years later he bought into, and later owned, a photographic studio in Seattle, developing a reputation for portraits and landscapes.

Curtis took his first photos of an American Indian in 1895/96—it was a portrait of the elderly daughter of Chief Siahl (Sealth)—Seattle—the namesake of the city. The old woman, known as Princess Angeline (c.1800-1896), was also known as Kickisomlo. She lived in poverty and wandered the mud flats of the sound digging clams. Curtis convinced her to pose, paying her in silver dollars, which became his standard fee for Indian models.

Edward Curtis "Watching the Dancers"

Edward Curtis
“Watching the Dancers”

In 1898, while photographing Mt. Rainier in Washington, Curtis rescued a group of scientists. Among them were naturalist George Bird Grinnell and zoologist/ethnographer Clinton Hart Merriam. Both invited him to join them on the famous E. H. Harriman expedition to Alaska as photographer. During this expedition Curtis learned how to approach photography in a scientific manner. He was also introduced to ethnographic recording methods using a wax (or phonographic) cylinder, and listened to lectures offered by the scientists as evening entertainment. In July, 1900, Grinnell invited Curtis to join him in Montana to witness what they thought would be the last great Sun Dance by the Plains Indians. The federal government tried to assimilate Native Americans and outlawed the Sun Dance—one of their most important ceremonies—in 1904. Curtis was intensely moved when he witnessed the ceremonies and saw some 230 tipis in the stark prairie landscape.  He described it as an “unforgettable view,” and it triggered his interest in documenting the North American Indians.

Edward Curtis, "Nakoaktok chief's daughter"

Edward Curtis,
“Nakoaktok chief’s daughter”

His goal was to document Native Americans’ diverse traditions and cultures before they became assimilated to a more Anglo-American lifestyle. The concern about losing generations’ worth of history motivated him to create one of the most comprehensive collections of tribal history and traditions. Curtis’ masterwork, The North American Indian, consists of twenty volumes of illustrated text and twenty larger, unbound portfolios. The complete series contains 2,228 photogravures documenting more than 80 Native American tribes that inhabited the lands west of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in the early twentieth century. In total he took more than 40,000 images and produced 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian language and music.

During the early 1900s, while Curtis was working on The North American Indian, the art world was struggling with how to handle photography, which had been seen as primarily a form of documentation or pastime. However, a few influential photographers, such as Alfred Stieglitz, tried to get photography accepted as an art form. Curtis believed that good photography was the product of study, not chance. He used different artistic approaches for his The North American Indian photogravures.

Edward Curtis, "Vash Gon"

Edward Curtis,
“Vash Gon”

He carefully posed sitters and masterfully used light (in Vash Gon – note the careful use of light so that the light illuminates the face and creates a silhouette of his face on the wall). His compositions are exquisite: the pyramid-like composition of Nakoaktok Chief’s Daughter responds to the architectural setting;  in Watching the Dancers he shows the backs of Hopi girls, which catches the attention of the viewers, who wonder what the girls are looking at. The black and white of the Hopi hair and clothing create an interesting contrast to the architecture.

Curtis used large-format cameras and glass-plate negatives: they captured images with outstanding clarity. He often selected romantic settings—for example the serene, misty, and mountainous bay area he selected as background for Chief’s party – Qagyuel . Curtis also often romanticized images by using techniques that diffuse light, blur backgrounds, softened edges, and used soft focus. These photographs continue the pictorial style of photography. They are “evocative and mysterious” images that allow for the play of visual imagination. He was a master in darkroom techniques, capable of extracting stunning prints from even the most underexposed negatives. His 1904 masterpiece The Vanishing Race is just such an image.  

Edward Curtis "Grinding meal"

Edward Curtis
“Grinding meal”

Today, no discussion of Edward Curtis would be complete without talking about the controversies associated with his work. Study of Curtis’s written and spoken record reveals that he saw the disappearance of Indian culture as inevitable. While he may have grieved over this loss, he didn’t see it as his job to try to save native culture, but rather simply to “record it” However, one of the criticisms of his work was that he did not depict Indian life as he found it. Especially in the beginning of the project, he insisted the Native Americans pose in traditional regalia (if they didn’t have traditional clothes he gave them some from his collection, and if one views his portfolio carefully, one can see different individuals posing in the same shirt or headdress.) He also sometimes clothed his sitters in items from other tribes or in clothes not appropriate for the occasion, such as this image of Hopi girls in ceremonial outfits grinding corn.

Edward Curtis "In a Piegan lodge"

Edward Curtis
“In a Piegan lodge”

It is commonly known that Curtis removed signs of contemporary life from his pictures: In a Piegan Lodge originally showed an alarm clock between the two seated men. Curtis touched up the clock in the negative and included the included the re-touched image in his portfolio. He was also criticized for his sometimes unethical method of obtaining access to sacred objects and ceremonies through bribery and manipulation. Another point of criticism is that Curtis only named well-known people in his titles and texts, like Geronimo; but he left most of his subjects suspended in anonymity. Their individual personality is often reduced to their race: a Southern Cheyenne woman is simply “Cheyenne Maiden” or a Qahatika Girl is “A Type of Desert Indian.”

Edward Curtis "Vanishing Race"

Edward Curtis
“Vanishing Race”

Despite these controversies Curtis’ North American Indian portfolio is one of the most comprehensive collections of tribal history and traditions and a landmark in the history of photography. If one reads it with care and keeps the discussed issues in mind, the texts still contain valuable ethnographic information. No other photographer has created a larger oeuvre on this theme.

After having spent almost twenty years in the field carrying a bulky 14 x 17 inch view camera, tripod, and fragile glass-plate negatives to remote areas, Curtis faced many other challenges, including the pressure of raising funds for the publication of The North American Indian series, promoting the work, and recruiting enough subscribers, as well as declining health. Curtis died broke and almost forgotten in Los Angeles in 1952.

Currently, there are three of Curtis’s photogravures included in the Changing Perspectives on Native Americans focus exhibition in the Museum’s Early Nineteenth-Century Art Gallery. Manuela-Well-Off-Man