Edward S. Curtis


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Edward Sheriff Curtis (February 16, 1868 – October 19, 1952) was an ethnologist and photographer of the American West and of Native American peoples.

In 1885 at the age of seventeen Edward became an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1887 the family moved to Seattle, Washington, where Edward purchased a new camera and became a partner in an existing photographic studio with Rasmus Rothi. Edward paid $150 for his 50 percent share in the studio. After about six months, Curtis left Rothi and formed a new partnership with Thomas Guptill. The new studio was called Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photoengravers.

In 1895 Curtis met and photographed Princess Angeline (c. 1800–1896), aka Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. This was to be his first portrait of a Native American.In 1898, three of Curtis’ images were chosen for an exhibition sponsored by the National Photographic Society. Two were images of Princess Angeline, “The Mussel Gatherer,” and “The Clam Digger.” The other was of the Puget Sound, entitled “Homeward.” The latter was awarded the exhibition’s grand prize and a gold medal. In that same year while photographing Mt. Rainier, Curtis came upon a small group of scientists. One of them was George Bird Grinnell, an expert on Native Americans. Curtis was appointed Official Photographer to the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899, probably as a result of his friendship with George Bird Grinnell. Having very little formal education Curtis learned much during the lectures that were given aboard the ship each evening of the voyage. Grinnell became interested in Curtis' photography and invited him to join an expedition to photograph the Blackfeet Indians in Montana in the year 1900.

In 1906 J. P. Morgan provided Curtis with $75,000 to produce a series on the North American Indian. This work was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Morgan's funds were to be disbursed over five years and were earmarked to support only fieldwork for the books not for writing, editing, or production of the volumes. Curtis himself would receive no salary for the project, which was to last more than 20 years. Under the terms of the arrangement, Morgan was to receive 25 sets and 500 original prints as his method of repayment.

Once Curtis had secured funding for the project, he was able to hire several employees to help him. For writing as well as with recording Native American languages, Curtis hired a former journalist, William E. Myers. For general assistance with logistics and fieldwork, Curtis hired Bill Phillips, a graduate of the University of Washington. Perhaps the most important hire for the success of the project was Frederick Webb Hodge, an anthropologist employed by the Smithsonian who had also researched Native American peoples of the southwestern United States. Hodge was hired to edit the entire series.

222 complete sets were eventually published. Curtis' goal was not just to photograph, but to document, as much American Indian (Native American) traditional life as possible before that way of life disappeared. He wrote in the introduction to his first volume in 1907: "The information that is to be gathered ... respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost." Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian language and music. He took over 40,000 photographic images from over 80 tribes. He recorded tribal lore and history, and he described traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs. He wrote biographical sketches of tribal leaders, and his material, in most cases, is the only written recorded history although there is still a rich oral tradition that documents history. This work was exhibited at the Rencontres d'Arles festival (France) in 1973.

Curtis had been using motion picture cameras in the fieldwork for The North American Indian since 1906. At the end of 1912, Curtis decided to create a feature film depicting Native American life, partly as a way of improving his financial situation and partly because film technology had improved to the point where it was conceivable to create and screen films more than a few minutes long. Curtis chose the Kwakiutl tribe of the Queen Charlotte Strait region of the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada, for his subject. This film, titled In the Land of the Head Hunters, was the first feature-length film whose cast was composed entirely of Native North Americans.

Theodore Roosevelt, who was one of Curtis' contemporaries and one of his most strident supporters, wrote the following comments in the foreword to Volume I of The North American Indian:

"In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because it is truthful. ...because of his extraordinary success in making and using his opportunities, has been able to do what no other man ever has done; what, as far as we can see, no other man could do. Mr. Curtis in publishing this book is rendering a real and great service; a service not only to our own people, but to the world of scholarship everywhere."


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