Biographical / Historical
Edward Sherriff Curtis (1868-1952) was an American photographer famous for his photographs of the indigenous peoples of North America. His work was highly influential in shaping a sympathetic yet romantic view of cultures that he and many others believed to be "vanishing." Over the course of 30 years, Curtis visited more than 80 Native American communities and published his photographs and ethnographies in the twenty-volume North American Indian (NAI) (1907-1930).
Curtis was born in Whitewater, Wisconsin, to Ellen and Johnson Curtis in 1868. In about 1874, his family moved to a farm in Cordova, Minnesota. At a young age, Curtis built a camera, and it is possible that he may have worked in a Minneapolis photography studio for a time. In 1887, Curtis and his father moved West and settled on a plot near what is now Port Orchard, Washington, with the rest of the family joining them the following year. When Johnson Curtis died within a month of the family's arrival, 20-year-old Curtis became the head of the family.
In 1891, Curtis moved to Seattle and bought into a photo studio with Rasmus Rothi. Less than a year later, he and Thomas Guptill formed "Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photoengravers." The endeavor became a premier portrait studio for Seattle society and found success in photoengraving for many local publications. In 1892, Curtis married Clara Phillips (1874-1932) and in 1893 their son Harold was born (1893-1988), followed by Elizabeth (Beth) (1896-1973), Florence (1899-1987) and Katherine (Billy) (1909-?). Around 1895, Curtis made his first photographs of local Native people, including the daughter of Duwamish chief Seattle: Kickisomlo or "Princess Angeline." Curtis submitted a series of his Native American photographs to the National Photographic Convention, and received an award in the category of "genre studies" for Homeward (later published in volume 9 of the NAI). In 1896, the entire Curtis family moved to Seattle, which included Curtis's mother, his siblings Eva and Asahel, Clara's sisters Susie and Nellie Phillips, and their cousin William Phillips. Most of the household worked in Curtis's studio along with other employees. Curtis became sole proprietor of the studio in 1897, which remained a popular portrait studio but also sold his scenic landscapes and views of the Seattle Area. Curtis also sent his brother Asahel to Alaska and the Yukon to photograph the Klondike Gold Rush, and sold those views as well. Asahel went on to become a well-known photographer in his own right, primarily working in the American Northwest.
Curtis was an avid outdoorsman and joined the Mazamas Club after his first of many climbs of Mount Rainier. On a climb in 1898, Curtis evidently met a group of scientists, including C. Hart Merriam, George Bird Grinnell, and Gifford Pinchot, who had lost their way on the mountain, and led them to safety. This encounter led to an invitation from Merriam for Curtis to accompany a group of over 30 well-known scientists, naturalists, and artists as the official photographer on a maritime expedition to the Alaskan coast. Funded by railroad magnate Edward Harriman, the Harriman Alaska Expedition left Seattle in May of 1899, and returned at the end of July. Curtis made around 5000 photographs during the trip, including photographs of the indigenous peoples they met as well as views of mountains, glaciers, and other natural features. Many of the photographs appeared in the expedition's 14 published volumes of their findings.
In 1900, Curtis accompanied Grinnell to Montana for a Blackfoot Sundance. Here, Curtis made numerous photographs and became interested in the idea of a larger project to document the Native peoples of North America. Almost immediately upon returning from the Sundance, Curtis set off for the Southwest to photograph Puebloan communities. By 1904, Curtis had already held at least one exhibit of his "Indian pictures" and his project 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 NAI) had taken shape and already received some press coverage. With his fieldwork now increasing his absences from home, Curtis hired Adolph Muhr, former assistant to Omaha photographer Frank Rinehart, to help manage the Seattle studio.
In 1904, Curtis was a winner in the Ladies Home Journal "Prettiest Children In America" portrait contest. His photograph of Marie Fischer was selected as one of 112 that would be published and Fischer was one of 12 children selected from the photographs who would have their portrait painted by Walter Russell. Russell and Curtis made an acquaintance while Russell was in Seattle to paint Fischer's portrait, and not long afterwards, Russell contacted Curtis to make photographic studies of Theodore Roosevelt's children for portraits he would paint. Curtis subsequently photographed the entire Roosevelt family, and developed a social connection with the President. Several important outcomes came of this new friendship, including Roosevelt eventually writing the foreword to the NAI, as well as making introductions to influential people.
Key among these introductions was one to wealthy financier John Pierpont Morgan, in 1906. After a brief meeting with Curtis during which he viewed several of Curtis's photographs of Native Americans, Morgan agreed to finance the fieldwork for the NAI project for five years, at $15,000.00 per year. It was up to Curtis to cover publishing and promotion costs, with the publication being sold as a subscription. In return, Morgan would receive 25 sets of the 20-volume publication. The ambitious publication plan outlined 20 volumes of ethnological text, each to be illustrated with 75 photogravure prints made from acid-etched copper plates. Each volume would be accompanied by a companion portfolio of 35 large photogravures. With high-quality papers and fine binding, a set would cost $3000.00. 500 sets were planned. Under Morgan, the North American Indian, Inc. formed as body to administer the monies. Also around this time, Frederick Webb Hodge, Director of the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology, agreed to edit the publications.
Curtis then began more systematic fieldwork, accompanied by a team of research assistants and Native interpreters. In 1906, Curtis hired William E. Myers, a former journalist, as a field assistant and stenographer. Over the years, Myers became the lead researcher on the project, making enormous contributions in collecting data and possibly doing the bulk of the writing for the first 18 volumes. Upon meeting a new community, Curtis and his team would work on gathering data dealing with all aspects of the community's life, including language, social and political organization, religion, food ways, measures and values, and many other topics. (See box 2 folder 1 in this collection for Curtis's list of topics.) Curtis and his assistants, especially Myers, brought books and papers to the field relating to the tribes they were currently concerned with, and often wrote from the field to anthropologists at the Bureau of American Ethnology and other institutions for information or publications. In addition to fieldnotes and photographs, the team also employed sound recording equipment, making thousands of recordings on wax cylinders. Curtis also often brought a motion picture camera, although few of his films have survived.
The first volume of the NAI was published towards the end of 1907. Already, Curtis was encountering difficulty in finding subscribers to the publication despite great praise in the press and among those who could afford the volumes. Curtis spent progressively more of his time outside the field season promoting the project through lectures and in 1911, presenting his "Picture Musicale"—a lecture illustrated with lantern slides and accompanied by an original musical score—in major cities. After the initial five funded years, only eight of the twenty volumes had been completed. However, Morgan agreed to continue support for the fieldwork and publication continued.
Starting in 1910, Curtis and his team worked among the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation on Vancouver Island, and in 1913 began to develop a documentary film project featuring the community in Alert Bay. In 1914, Curtis produced the feature-length film, In the Land of the Headhunters. The film showcased an all-indigenous cast and included an original musical score. Screened in New York and Seattle, it received high praise. However after this initial success, it did not receive the attention Curtis had hoped for, and resulted in financial loss.
Meanwhile, Curtis's prolonged absences from home had taken a toll on his marriage and in 1919 Clara and Edward divorced. The Seattle studio was awarded to Clara, and Curtis moved to Los Angeles, opening a photography studio with his daughter Beth and her husband Manford "Mag" Magnuson. Daughters Florence and Katherine came to Los Angeles sometime later. Curtis continued with fieldwork and promotion of the project, and in 1922 volume 12 of the NAI was published. Also in 1922, Curtis was accompanied during the field season in California by his daughter Florence Curtis Graybill, the first time a family member had gone to the field with him since the Curtis children were very small.
Curtis continued to push the project and publications along, yet never without financial struggle and he picked up work in Hollywood as both a still and motion picture photographer. John Pierpont Morgan, Jr., continued to provide funding for the fieldwork in memory of his father, but with the various financial upsets of the 1910s and 1920s, Curtis had a difficult time getting subscribers on board. In 1926, Myers, feeling the strain, regretfully resigned after the completion of volume 18. Anthropologist Frank Speck recommended Stewart Eastwood, a recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, to replace Myers as ethnologist for the final two volumes.
In 1927, Curtis and his team, along with his daughter Beth Curtis Magnuson, headed north from Seattle to Alaska and Canada on a final field season. Harsh weather and a hip injury made the trip difficult for Curtis, but he was very satisfied with the season's work. The party returned to Seattle, and upon arrival Curtis was arrested for unpaid alimony. He returned exhausted to Los Angeles, and in 1930 the final two volumes of NAI were published without fanfare. Curtis spent the next two years recovering from physical and mental exhaustion. Beth and Mag continued to run the Curtis studio in LA, but for the most part, Curtis had set down his camera for good. With the NAI behind him and his health recovered, Curtis pursued various interests and employment; he continued to do some work in Hollywood, including working on The Plainsman, starring Gary Cooper.
In 1933 Curtis was publicly criticized by John Collier, the Commissioner for Indian Affairs for some of the statements he had made on certain Pueblo ceremonies in the NAI volume 16, published in 1924. In September of 1934 Curtis received a letter from Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior regarding the claims published in volume 16, demanding a printed apology to be distributed among the text of the book as well as removal of the offending text from any undistributed copies of the publication. Curtis spent months writing and compiling supporting documentation in his defense, which he submitted to Ickes in January 1935. Also in 1935, the Morgan estate liquidated the North American Indian, Inc. and sold the remaining sets of the NAI volumes and unbound pages, photogravures, and copper printing plates along with the rights to the material to Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat for $1000.00.
Curtis's interest in gold prospecting took a front seat in the mid-1930s. While he scouted for potentially profitable mines in Northern California, his friend Ted Shell and possibly his son Harold sought investors. However, nothing ever fully panned out, though Curtis did design and build a concentrator for separating fine gold from placer tailings. He later sold the patent for ten dollars. Eventually, Curtis settled down on a farm outside Los Angeles, moving later to live with Beth and Mag, where he stayed until his death. In the mid to late 1940s Curtis began to write his memoirs. His daughter Florence visited him regularly and typed as Curtis dictated his recollections, and at some point he completed a draft of a memoir titled "As it Was." He also went through his papers and annotated or tucked notes among the correspondence and other material giving a brief explanation of the item or its context. Curtis died at home in 1952.
Prior to his death, Curtis had been out of the public eye for some years, and the NAI had slipped into relative obscurity. The Curtis studio in Los Angeles continued to sell Curtis's Native American photographs, and Florence gave occasional talks on her father, but it wasn't until the early 1970s that Curtis's work saw a renewed interest. This renaissance took place largely in the art photography market, but Curtis's biography and the NAI were also getting treatment in publications. Florence Curtis Graybill partnered with Victor Boesen to produce two narrative histories of Curtis and his work, and these were followed by many others. Florence continued to publish short works on her father for many years, and stayed in touch with numerous people involved in projects both scholarly and commercial that related to Curtis's work.
Davis, Barbara. Edward S. Curtis: the life and times of a shadowcatcher. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1984.
Gidley, Mick. The North American Indian, Incorporated. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Curtis is born in Whitewater, Wisconsin
Curtis family moves to Cordova, Minnesota
Moves with his father to Washington territory to be joined by his mother and siblings in 1888
With Rasmus Rothi forms Rothi & Curtis photography studio in Seattle
Marries Clara Phillips
With Thomas Guptill forms Curtis & Guptill Photographers and Photoengravers in Seattle
Becomes interested in photographing the indigenous people of the area
Guptill leaves, Curtis establishes himself as Edward S. Curtis, Photographer and Photoengraver
Meets C. Hart Merriam, George Bird Grinnell, and Gifford Pinchot during climb on Mount Rainier
Receives first place award from the National Photographic Convention in the "Genre Studies" for his photographs of Native Americans
Joins Harriman Alaska Expedition as official photographer at request of C. Hart Merriam and George Bird Grinnell
Accompanies George Bird Grinnell to Blackfoot reservation in Montana for Sundance
Becomes interested in a major project to document Native American tribes
Travels to Arizona to photograph Hopi communities
Travels again to the southwest to photograph Native communities
Holds first formal exhibit of Native American photographs in his studio
Publicly announces intention to produce major publication on Native Americans
Portrait entered in the Ladies Home Journal "Prettiest Children in America" contest is selected for publication and as a result, Curtis is asked to photograph President Theodore Roosevelt's family
Conducts fieldwork among Native communities of the southwest
Meets with J. P. Morgan, who agrees to finance the fieldwork for Curtis's project
Hires William E. Myers as researcher and writer for the project
Volume 1 of NAI is published
Volumes 2 and 3 of NAI are published
Volumes 4 and 5 of NAI are published
Volumes 6, 7, and 8 of NAI are published
Presents and tours the "Picture Musicale"
J. P. Morgan dies, but his son agrees to continue to provide support for NAI
Volume 9 of NAI is published
Releases film In the Land of the Headhunters
Volume 10 of NAI is published
Volume 11 of NAI is published
Edward and Clara Curtis divorce and the Seattle studio is awarded to Clara
Moves to Los Angeles and opens new studio with daughter Beth and her husband, Manford Magnuson
Volume 12 of NAI is published
Conducts fieldwork in California with daughter Florence Curtis Graybill
Volumes 13 and 14 of NAI are published
Volumes 15, 16, and 17 of NAI are published
William E. Myers resigns as chief writer and ethnologist of NAI
Conducts fieldwork in Alaska and Canada for final NAI volume with daughter Beth Curtis Magnuson
Volume 18 of NAI is published
Volumes 19 and 20 of NAI are published
Applies himself to various interests, especially gold mining
Dies in Los Angeles at the home of Beth and Manford Magnuson