Biography and Background of Edward S. Curtis
Although unknown for many years, Edward Sheriff Curtis is today one of the most well-recognized and celebrated photographers of Native American Indian people. Born near White Water, Wisconsin, on February 16, 1868, he became interested in the emerging art of photography when he was quite young. He built his first camera when he was still an adolescent. In 1887 his family moved to Seattle and shortly thereafter his father died from pneumonia. Edward then assumed primary responsibility for supporting his mother and two siblings. He acquired part interest in a portrait photography studio with Thomas Guptill in 1892. While their business was successful, they parted ways in 1897 and Curtis renamed his business Edward S. Curtis, Photographer and Photoengraver. Also in 1892 Curtis, at age 24, married Clara Phillips. They had four children: Harold, Beth, Florence and Katherine. Clara and their first three children initially accompanied Curtis on many of his trips.
In the mid 1890s, Curtis began photographing local Puget Sound Native Americans digging for clams and mussels on the tide flats. One of his earliest models was Princess Angeline, the aged daughter of Sealth, the Suquamish chief after whom Seattle was named. Later, as an official photographer of the 1899 Harriman Expedition, Curtis documented the geological features of the Alaskan wilderness as well as its indigenous population. This was a pivotal experience for Curtis and greatly increased his interest in Native cultures.
In 1900 Curtis accompanied George Bird Grinnell to the Piegan Reservation in northwest Montana to photograph the Sun Dance ceremony. He also visited tribal communities in Arizona and began in earnest to photograph many other Native Americans in the West. He was spending more time in the field and less time in his studio and less time at home. In 1916 Clara filed for divorce after growing tired from the strain on their marriage caused by his long absences. Upon settlement of the divorce in 1919, Clara was awarded everything including the Seattle studio and all of Curtis’ negatives. At this time many of the studio’s glass plate negatives were destroyed. Curtis’ oldest daughter, Beth, moved with Curtis to Los Angeles where they opened a studio together in 1920.
The North American Indian Project
In the early years of the 20th century, Curtis embarked on a thirty-year mission which he described as an effort “to form a comprehensive and permanent record of all the important tribes of the United States and Alaska that still retain to a considerable degree their...customs and traditions. The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other.” Curtis believed that “consequently the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time.” Along with most scholars of this period, he believed that indigenous communities would inevitably be absorbed into white society, losing their unique cultural identities. He wanted to create a scholarly and artistic work that would document the ceremonies, beliefs, customs, daily life, and leaders of these groups before they “vanished.”
In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt invited Curtis to photograph his children after seeing Curtis' winning photograph in "The Prettiest Children in American" contest published in Ladies' Home Journal. That same year, Louisa Satterlee, daughter-in-law of financier J. P. Morgan, purchased Curtis photographs at an exhibit in New York City. In 1906 while on a whirlwind tour of the East Coast to lecture and raise support for the project, Curtis was granted a meeting in New York with railroad magnate John Pierpont Morgan. Although he was abruptly dismissed, rather than leaving Curtis instead opened a folder of his Indian photographs and laid them on Morgan's desk. After viewing the images Morgan agreed to provide Curtis with $75,000, to be paid at $15,000 per year for five years. The North American Indian project was born in earnest and it would become Curtis' masterwork.
Curtis and Morgan decided that The North American Indian would be a set of 20 volumes of ethnographic text illustrated with high quality photoengravings taken from his glass plate negatives. Each of these volumes would be accompanied by a portfolio of large size images, all sumptuously bound in Moroccan leather. The papers used for printing would also be of the best quality: a Dutch etching stock by Van Gelder, a Japanese vellum, and for the most discerning subscribers, a translucent Japanese tissue paper. To fund publication, Curtis would sell subscriptions at approximately $3,000 per set, with a total of 500 sets to be published. The price rose to about $4,200 by 1924. President Roosevelt agreed to write the forward for the project. In return for his investment, Morgan would receive 25 sets of The North American Indian and 500 original photographs, many of which he would later donate to various institutions.
Curtis received his first check of $15,000 from Morgan on March 30, 1906. From then on, Curtis was constantly working and photographing in the field, giving lectures and slide shows throughout the United States, and all the while struggling to market The North American Indian. It was soon evident that the completion date for the project would far extend the original estimate of five years. In 1912, after 6 years, only part of the project (8 volumes) was completed. In 1913, J.P. Morgan died, but his son decided to continue funding The North American Indian until finished.
Working alone or with various assistants, soliciting donations and support from diverse sources and also accumulating a heavy personal debt, Curtis visited more than eighty tribes across the United States, and north into Alaska and parts of Canada. Eventually, he took more than 40,000 photographs; made over 10,000 recordings of Native speech and music. He produced lectures, slide shows, and a multi-media Curtis Indian Picture Opera throughout the U.S. In 1914 Curtis directed In the Land of the Headhunters, an inventive, seminal film documentary on the Kwakiutl tribe.
Volume One of The North American Indian appeared in 1907 with 120 images of “the Apache, the Jicarillas, and the Navaho.” In 1930 after persevering through many hardships in trying to achieve his goal, the last two volumes, number 19 and 20, were finally published, completing nearly thirty years of work. Each volume contained approximately 75 images averaging 7.25 x 5.35 inches (18.5 x 13.6cm) in a bound volume paired with an additional portfolio of approximately 35 larger images averaging 17.75 x 13 inches (45 x 33 cm). There were a total number of 2,226 prints in each 20 volume/portfolio set. There were 272 sets completed out of the projected 500 sets. Although he didn’t publish all 500 sets this still represents a staggering total of 605,472 prints for the 272 sets! The sheer volume of work required to achieve this is stunning. Curtis’ determination to complete this task is daunting. This does not even take into account the number of prints made from the other approximate 38,000 images of just the North American Indians. Unfortunately, by 1930, the modest popularity of Curtis's work had diminished.
In 1935, when Curtis was 67 years old, The North American Indian Corporation liquidated its assets and the materials remaining from the project were sold to the Charles Lauriat Company, a rare book dealer in Boston. Lauriat acquired 19 unsold sets of The North American Indian, thousands of individual prints, sheets of unbound paper, and the handmade copper photogravure plates. Curtis' original glass plate negatives --most of which had been stored and nearly forgotten in a basement of New York's Morgan Library--were unwittingly dispersed during World War II. Many others were destroyed and some were sold as junk.
In the years that followed the completion of the North American Indian project Curtis involved himself in mining ventures and continued to do occasional work in Hollywood. Around 1947, he settled on a farm in Whittier, California that belonged to Beth and her husband Manford Magnuson. At this time Curtis was very close to all of his children, including Katherine, who had moved to California when her mother died in 1932. Curtis died of a heart attack on October 19, 1952, at 84 years old, at Beth's home in Los Angeles. Proof that Curtis and his lifework had all but faded into obscurity was the brief obituary that appeared in the New York Times calling him an expert in Native American history and mentioning that he was also known as a photographer.
"Rediscovered" in the 1960s and 1970s, Curtis's photographic work is now recognized as one of the most significant records of Native American Indian culture ever produced. His photographs have been included in virtually every anthology of historical photographs of Native American Indians and are now frequently used to illustrate books and documentaries.
The above information has been compiled from the following sources:
The Library of Congress
The University of Minnesota Library
The Northwestern University Library
Flury and Company, Ltd.