Reevaluating
Edward S. Curtis

Brulé Indians, many wearing war bonnets, on horseback, 1907.

Edward Curtis
Brulé Indians, many wearing war bonnets, on horseback, 1907.
On the 150th Anniversary of Edward Curtis' birth, his famously beautiful photographs of Native Americans are being seen in a new light

On the 150th Anniversary of Edward Curtis' birth, his famously beautiful photographs of Native Americans are being seen in a new light

Wikipedia

Edward S. Curtis

Curtis believed, as did many early anthropologists, that the world’s “traditional” and “primitive” cultures would disappear as they were inevitably assimilated by more “civilized” ones.

It is impossible to conceive of the photographic history of the American West without Edward Curtis’s The North American Indian, his massive project to document the life and culture of eighty Native American peoples published in twenty volumes between 1907 and 1930. Curtis, who by the 1890s was Seattle’s premier portrait photographer, began photographing the Coast Salish peoples of the Puget Sound in 1895. He made and sold views of Mount Rainier before serving as a photographer on railroad titan Edward Harriman’s privately funded expedition to Alaska in 1899.

The expedition was a who’s who of turn-of-the-century natural science, including anthropologist George Bird Grinnell, an expert on Plains cultures. It yielded more than 5,000 photographs, from which Harriman published a two-volume souvenir book featuring 253 photographs by Curtis and other expedition members. It was Grinnell who introduced Curtis to field work. Following the expedition, Grinnell invited him to a Piegan reservation in Montana to photograph a Sun Dance ceremony; Curtis subsequently made several trips to reservations in the Southwest in the early 1900s. Curtis believed, as did many early anthropologists, that the world’s “traditional” and “primitive” cultures would disappear as they were inevitably assimilated by more “civilized” ones. Likely influenced by the place of photography in early anthropological field work, by 1904 Curtis had embarked on his project to create a comprehensive record of indigenous peoples and cultures before they vanished.

At the same time, Curtis’s studio portraiture caught the eye of President Theodore Roosevelt, who commissioned him to photograph his family. With a letter from the president, this eventually allowed him to pitch his project to J. P. Morgan in 1906. Morgan funded it with $15,000 annually for five years (the equivalent of more than $350,000 annually in today’s dollars). The first volume of The North American Indian was published in 1907. Each volume combined text with photogravures, accompanied by a portfolio of large, unmounted photogravure plates. There were other projects as well: illustrated lectures, popular books, even a musicale at Carnegie Hall in 1911.

PioPio-Maksmaks, Wallawalla, 1905
Edward S. Curtis

PioPio Maksmaks, Wallawalla, 1905

Tah It Way, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front, peace pipe on right, 1905.
Edward S. Curtis

Tah It Way, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front, peace pipe on right, 1905.

Head-and-shoulders portrait of Jicarilla man, 1905.
Edward S. Curtis

Head-and-shoulders portrait of Jicarilla man, 1905.

Yellow Kidney, Piegan man, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, wearing a fur headdress, 1910.
Edward S. Curtis

Yellow Kidney, Piegan man, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, wearing a fur headdress, 1910.

Arikara girl, 1908.
Edward S. Curtis

Arikara girl, 1908.

Cheyenne profile, 1910.
Edward S. Curtis

Cheyenne profile, 1910.

Touch her dress--Kalispel. Kalispel girl sitting on her knees, hands folded in lap, 1910.
Edward S. Curtis

Touch her dress--Kalispel. Kalispel girl sitting on her knees, hands folded in lap, 1910.

Head-and-shoulders portrait of Nez Percé man in full feather headdress, 1910.
Edward S. Curtis

Head-and-shoulders portrait of Nez Percé man in full feather headdress, 1910.

Lies Sideway. Head-and-shoulders portrait of Crow man, 1908.
Edward S. Curtis

Lies Sideway. Head-and-shoulders portrait of Crow man, 1908.

Alchise, Apache Indian, half-length portrait, left profile, 1906.
Edward S. Curtis

Alchise, Apache Indian, half-length portrait, left profile, 1906.

Quinault female head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly left, 1913.
Edward S. Curtis

Quinault female head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly left, 1913.

Okuwa-Tsire ("Cloud Bird"), San Ildefonso. Portrait of a Tewa boy, head-and-shoulders, facing front, 1905.
Edward S. Curtis

Okuwa-Tsire ("Cloud Bird"), San Ildefonso. Portrait of a Tewa boy, head-and-shoulders, facing front, 1905.

Snake priest. Native American man seated, three-quarter-length, facing front, 1900.
Edward S. Curtis

Snake priest. Native American man seated, three-quarter-length, facing front, 1900.

Cheyenne girl, half-length portrait, facing front, 1905.
Edward S. Curtis

Cheyenne girl, half-length portrait, facing front, 1905.

Curtis made his photographs and traded in ethnographic objects as well as making 10,000 wax-cylinder recordings of language, music, and tribal lore and histories. The project required the help of a team of ethnologists, photographic assistants, and informants, among them ethnographer William E. Myers, who was the project’s main writer, and Frederick Webb Hodge, one of the most respected anthropologists of his time and editor of the series, as well as native informants George Hunt and Alexander Upshaw—all under the mantle of Curtis’s company, The North American Indian, Inc.

Edward S. Curtis

Qahatika girl, wearing scarf, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front, 1907.

Curtis’s photographs are romantic, attempting to portray people and cultures as if they were untouched by Manifest Destiny and the Dawes Act in a project of “ethnographic salvage.”

The encyclopedic scale of Curtis’s project evokes the four great U.S. geographical and geological survey expeditions that documented and mapped vast spans of Western lands from 1867 to1879. Led by Clarence King (himself a photographer), George Wheeler, Ferdinand Hayden, and John Wesley Powell, the expeditions were staffed by photographers whose work is foundational to Western photography—Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson, William Bell, and John K. Hillers. Hillers, also known for his portraits of Native peoples, later served as the first staff photographer for the Bureau of Ethnology (now the National Anthropological Archives), founded by Powell.

At the same time, Curtis’s photographs echo the gauzy chiaroscuro and allegorical tendencies also visible in the work of the Photo-Secession spearheaded by Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz championed photogravure, a photo-mechanical printing process capable of translating photography’s tonal ranges into a print, as a photographic medium in itself and as the medium for printing photographs in his fine arts magazine, Camera Work. Gertrude Käsebier also had a sustained interest in photographing Native Americans, and a hand-pulled photogravure reproduction of her gum bichromate print appeared in the magazine’s first volume in 1903. In 1905 Curtis’s photographs were exhibited at the Fine Arts Exhibit of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, together with those of Käsebier, Frank Eugene, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Clarence H. White.

The sheer scale of Curtis’s project, which would yield 40,000 negatives, eventually exhausted Morgan’s patronage—and public interest. Conceived of on a subscription model, the project’s finances were always unstable. Between 1912 and 1914 Curtis made a full-length feature film, In the Land of the Head Hunters, about Kwakiutl, or Kwakwaka’wakw, culture—in the hopes that it could support his the project, but the film failed. Completing the series cost Curtis his marriage, and the grueling conditions of fieldwork ruined his health. In 1920 he moved to Los Angeles and worked as a cameraman on Cecil B. DeMille’s films—including his 1936 western, The Plainsman—to underwrite his continued fieldwork. Increasingly marginalized from professional ethnography, Curtis published the final volume in 1930 and died in obscurity in 1952.

Landscape with four tipis, eleven Atsina Indians on horseback, three women, a child, and two dogs, Montana, 1908.
Edward S. Curtis

Landscape with four tipis, eleven Atsina Indians on horseback, three women, a child, and two dogs, Montana, 1908.

Klamath tule hut, 1923.
Edward S. Curtis

Klamath tule hut, 1923.

Cowichan woman putting tule on boat, 1910.
Edward S. Curtis

Cowichan woman putting tule on boat, 1910.

Two Salish women drying meat on a stick frame, 1910.
Edward S. Curtis

Two Salish women drying meat on a stick frame, 1910.

Hupa man with spear, standing on bank gazing into stream, 1923.
Edward S. Curtis

Hupa man with spear, standing on bank gazing into stream, 1923.

Crow Chief's Daughter, 1910.
Edward S. Curtis

Crow Chief's Daughter, 1910.

Skidi and Wichita dancers, 1927.
Edward S. Curtis

Skidi and Wichita dancers, 1927.

Three Tewa Indians, two on roof of adobe building, one on ladder, San Idlefonso, New Mexico, 1927.
Edward S. Curtis

Three Tewa Indians, two on roof of adobe building, one on ladder, San Idlefonso, New Mexico, 1927.

Nez Percé man, wearing loin cloth and moccasins, on horseback, 1910.
Edward S. Curtis

Nez Percé man, wearing loin cloth and moccasins, on horseback, 1910.

Mandan bull boat, 1908.
Edward S. Curtis

Mandan bull boat, 1908.

Apsaroke woman scraping hide that is secured to the ground by numerous stakes, tipi in background, 1908.
Edward S. Curtis

Apsaroke woman scraping hide that is secured to the ground by numerous stakes, tipi in background, 1908.

In 1970 the Pierpont Morgan Library mounted an exhibition of Curtis’s work. An exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art followed in 1972. The catalogue, published by Aperture, as well as the rediscovery of Curtis’s copper printing plates in the basement of a Boston publishing company, sparked renewed interest.

The North American Indian has been reappraised on a number of fronts, starting with the fact that Curtis had wardrobed some of his subjects with the same “Indian” costumes, and emphasized the picturesque pre-colonial aspects of their lives. Curtis’s photographs are romantic, attempting to portray people and cultures as if they were untouched by Manifest Destiny and the Dawes Act in a project of “ethnographic salvage.” Native American author Vine Deloria, Jr. observed that the photographs “became the perfect format for the wistful reservoir of emotion that lay behind the general perception of Indians.” Recently, critic Shamoon Zamir proposed that “the Native Americans photographed by Curtis be considered, to some degree at least, coauthors of the visual meanings of The North American Indian.”

Perhaps the greatest myth of photography is that it tells a singular truth. Rather, photographs can hold and convey multiple meanings that are delimited by time and place. Taking stock of Curtis’s work, it is clear that he possessed an extraordinary vision, one that synthesized the cultural, social, and aesthetic forces of the early twentieth century. This monumental record continues to spark multiple, important re-readings and reckonings, which underscore the limits of authorial intent to fix the meaning of a photograph.

About the Author

Andrea L. Volpe

Andrea L. Volpe is a cultural historian, essayist, and critic. She writes about photography, culture, and technology from Cambridge, Massachusetts. More at andrealvolpe.com and on Twitter @andrealvolpe.