Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) was an American photographer best known for his monumental and now-controversial project, the twenty-volume publication
The North American Indian
. Here he sought to document in words and pictures the “vanishing race” of American Indians.
Born in Wisconsin in 1868, Edward Curtis grew up on his family’s farm in Le Sueur County, Minnesota, from 1874 to 1887. In 1887, he and his father Johnson Curtis settled on a plot near what is now Port Orchard, Washington, and the rest of the family joined them the following year. When Johnson Curtis died within a month of the family’s arrival, the burden of providing for his mother and siblings fell to 20-year-old Edward, and Edward set out to do so through his photography. In 1891, Curtis moved to the booming city of Seattle and bought into a joint photo studio with Rasmus Rothi. Less than a year later, he formed “Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photoengravers” with Thomas Guptill; the enterprise quickly became a premier portrait studio for Seattle’s elite. In 1895, Curtis made his first “Indian photograph” depicting Princess Angeline, daughter of the chief for whom Seattle had been named. The following year he earned his first medal from the National Photographic Convention for his “genre studies.”
In 1899, Edward Curtis joined the Harriman Alaska Expedition as official photographer, a position which allowed him to learn from anthropologists C. Hart Merriam and George Bird Grinnell while documenting the landscapes and peoples of the Alaskan coast. This expedition and the resulting friendship with Grinnell helped to foster Curtis’s ultimate goal 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 primitive customs and traditions” (General Introduction,
The North American Indian
). Curtis made several trips to reservations from 1900 to 1904, including a trip with Grinnell to Montana in 1900 and multiple trips to the Southwest, including the Hopi Reservation. He also hired Adolph Muhr, former assistant to Omaha photographer Frank A. Rinehart, to manage the Curtis studio in his absence, a decision which would prove more and more fruitful as Curtis spent less and less time in Seattle.
In 1906, Curtis struck a deal with financier J. P. Morgan, whereby Morgan would support a company – The North American Indian, Inc. – with $15,000 for five years, by which time the project was expected to have ended. Systematic fieldwork for the publication began in earnest that summer season, with Curtis accompanied by a team of ethnological researchers and American Indian assistants. Arguably the most important member of Curtis’ field team was William Myers, a former newspaperman who collected much of the ethnological data and completed most of the writing for the project. The first volume, covering Navajo and Apache peoples, was published at the end of 1907, but already Morgan’s funding was incapable of meeting Curtis’s needs. Despite heaping praise from society’s elite, Curtis spent much of his time struggling to find people and institutions willing to subscribe to the expensive set of volumes. After the initial five years, only eight of the proposed twenty volumes had been completed. Fieldwork and publication continued with the support of J. P. Morgan, but Curtis's home life suffered because of his prolonged absences.
In 1919, Curtis’s wife Clara was awarded a divorce settlement which included the entire Curtis studio in Seattle. Exhausted and bankrupt, Edward Curtis moved with his daughter Beth Magnuson to Los Angeles, where they operated a new Curtis Studio and continued work on the volumes; volume 12 was published in 1922. The constant financial strain forced Myers to leave the North American Indian team after volume 18 (fieldwork in 1926) and Curtis made his last trip to photograph and gather data for volume 20 in 1927. After the final volumes were published in 1930, Curtis almost completely faded from public notice until his work was "rediscovered" and popularized in the 1970s.
Curtis’s “salvage ethnology,” as scholar Mick Gidley describes it, was mildly controversial even during his life and has become ever more so as his legacy deepens. In his quest to photograph pre-colonial Indian life through a twentieth-century lens, he often manipulated and constructed history as much as he recorded it: he staged reenactments, added props, and removed evidence of twentieth-century influences on “primitive” life. Curtis’s work continues to shape popular conceptions of American Indians and so, while problematic, his legacy--his vision of American Indian life--continues to be relevant.