Edward Curtis

Edward S. Curtis was born in 1868 near Whitewater, Wisconsin. From a young age he was fascinated with photography and even built his own camera even though he dropped out of school only receiving a grade 6 education. In 1874, his family moved and Edward Curtis found a job working as a darkroom assistant in Saint Paul, Minnesota (age 17). In 1887, he and his family moved, once again, to Seattle, Washington. There, Edward Curtis purchased a new camera and became a partner in a photography studio with Rasmus Rothi. Soon after, Curtis left Rothi and joined with Thomas Guptil and created the new studio Curtis and Guptil Photographers and Photoengravers. Guptil left in 1897 and the studio became Edward S. Curtis Photographer and Photoengraver. In 1892 Edward Curtis married Clara Phillips and together they had four children.
Curtis liked exploring the mountains in the area and whilst climbing Mount Rainier, he came upon some lost hikers. He led them back to camp and this meeting was to change his life. This hiking party included C. Hart Merriam (Chief of the United States Biological Survey) and George Bird Grinnell (editor of Field and Stream magazine). Merriam arranged for Edward Curtis to accompany the Harriman Expedition to Alaska in the summer of 1899 as a photographer. Grinnell was also part of this expedition and became very interested in Curtis` photographs. Together in the summer of 1900, they took an expedition to Montana to photograph and study the Blackfeet Indians. On this trip, Curtis decided to photograph and study all Native American tribes west of the Mississippi River. He realized that as the settlers continued to move west, the Native American culture would soon vanish as they were displaced and had to integrate into Western society.
In 1906, J.P. Morgan financed Curtis` dream and gave him $75,000 to produce a series on the North American Indian. The project was only expected to take 5 years. There are 20 volumes in total with a foreword by President Theodore Roosevelt, 20 portfolios, and over 2,200 photogravures. Curtis took over 40,000 images of more than 80 tribes, and 10,000 wax cylinders of music and language. It took him close to 25 years to finish his goal, during the time he went through much difficulty. His wife, Clara, divorced him in 1919 and gained both his studio and original camera negatives. By 1928, he was desperate for cash and sold the rights to The North American Indian to J.P. Morgan`s son who then went on to sell the rights to the Charles E. Lauriat Company. Edward Curtis died on October 19th, 1952 from a heart attack in Whittier California. He is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills, California.
The apparatus was not an important aspect for Edward Curtis. As previously stated, his first camera he built himself, then he bought what was available once he went into business. The images shown in the 20 volumes of The North American Indian are sepia toned photogravures taken from glass plate negatives. Not much else is known about his camera and prints.
Edward Curtis took his photos with the aim of recording Native American culture. There are two main types of photos in his collections. One type aims to show his subjects in scenes from their daily lives and incorporate traditional dress and ceremonies. These shots are done almost exclusively outdoors and depict landscape and housing. This is especially important when it comes to the different tribes as they differ exponentially from North to South and East to West. The other type of image involves one subject, particularly important historical figures, and they are placed in a studio setting in order to get a traditional portrait. Almost all his portraits show the subjects in a medium to close up shot at eye level with the subject looking straight at the camera. Not all of these images are done in a studio but the background is out of focus and becomes unimportant.
Curtis’ photos romanticize the Native Americans as he saw them as a ‘vanishing race’ and thus some controversy arose surrounding his research and images. Some of the photos have been retouched in order to omit the presence of Western society. Objects have been removed from photographs or the photos are staged. Some subjects have been posed in situations and dress that were no longer in use (from a time previous to the one he was photographing), or inaccurately, or the ceremonies depicted where simulated and not actually occurring. However, his work did accomplish the goal of recording Native American history and culture prior to contact with Western society.
Themes or Motifs
As already stated, Edward Curtis tended to romanticize the Native Americans as well as document them. Many are shown in the same portrait positioning and depicted the style and dress characteristic of their own tribe. The important thing is that the images were taken in order to document and record and are thus taken from an anthropologist angle even though Curtis was not an anthropologist.
Edward Curtis took these photos because he felt a personal obligation to record a culture that he felt was ‘vanishing’. Today, his work is praised because he took on this enormous task based on a desire to learn and not for monetary gain. This expedition was complicated and difficult; one needs to consider the distance travelled, the equipment of the time, as well as the reception into the homes of the Native Americans. However, Curtis completed his work even though the full extent of his accomplishment is only realized today. He died with barely any recognition, indeed his obituary in The New York Times reads, “Edward S. Curtis, internationally known authority on the history of the North American Indian, died today at the home of a daughter, Mrs. Bess Magnuson. His age was 84. Mr. Curtis devoted his life to compiling Indian history. His research was done under the patronage of the late financier, J. Pierpont Morgan. The foreward for the monumental set of Curtis books was written by President Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer” (Wikipedia).

For images, see http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/.

Works Cited
“Biography: Edward Sheriff Curtis”. Flury & Company Ltd. Accessed March 14th, 2011. <http://www.fluryco.com/curtis/index.htm>
“Edward S. Curtis’s The North American Indian”. Modified April 9th, 2004. Northwestern University. Accessed March 14th, 2011. <http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/curtis/toc.cgi>
“Edward S. Curtis”. Modified March 2nd, 2011. Wikipedia. Accessed March 14th, 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_S._Curtis>
Capture, George Horse. “Edward Curtis: Shadow Catcher”. April 23rd, 2001. American Masters PBS. Accessed March 14tth, 2011. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/edward-curtis/shadow-catcher/568/>
Cardozo, Christopher. ”Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian.” Christopher Cardozo Fine Art. Accessed March 14th, 2011. <http://www.edwardcurtis.com/curtis.html>
Longman Canada Limited. In a Sacred Manner We Live. Don Mills: Barre Publishers, 1972
Keller, Eric J. “Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian”. 2007. Soulcatcher Studio. Accessed March 14th, 2011. <http://www.soulcatcherstudio.com/artists/curtis_cron.html>