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Edward S. Curtis - Photographing Indian Life

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Edward S. CurtisEdward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) - A photographer of the American West, Curtis is most well known for his photographs of Native Americans in the early 20th century. Born near Whitewater, Wisconsin on February 16, 1868 to Reverend Johnson Asahel Curtis and Ellen Sheriff Curtis, the family moved to Minnesota around 1874. Curtis dropped out of school in the sixth grade and soon built his own camera. In 1880 the family was living in Cordova Township, Minnesota, where his father worked as a retail grocer. At the age of 17, Edward became an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Two years later, in 1887 the family moved to Seattle, Washington, where Edward purchased a new camera and investing $150 into an existing photographic studio with Rasmus Rothi, he became a 50% partner. This endeavor was short lived and after only six months, Curtis left Rothi and formed a new partnership with a man named Thomas Guptill in a studio called Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photoengravers.


In 1892 Edward married Clara J. Phillips and the couple would eventually have four children. In the bustling frontier city of Seattle, his photography business began to thrive. In 1895, he met and photographed Salish Princess Angeline, who was known by her tribe as Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. This was to be his first portrait of a Native American. His favorite subjects beyond the confines of the studio were Mount Rainier, city scenes, and, increasingly, local Indians. He was also quick to follow the news, reporting on the hardships which befell the prospectors who joined the gold rush to the Klondike in 1897.


George Bird GrinnellIn 1898 while photographing Mt. Rainier, Curtis came upon a small group of scientists, one of whom was George Bird Grinnell, an expert on Native Americans. Both Grinnell and Curtis were invited on the famous Harriman Alaska Expedition in 1899, in which Curtis was designated as the official photographer Afterward, Grinnell invited Curtis to join an expedition to photograph the Blackfoot Indians in Montana in the year 1900.


During the expedition, Curtis witnessed the Sun Dance ceremonies, rituals of pain willingly suffered "for strength and visions." Through this experience together with Grinnell's tutelage, Curtis came to his developing conception of a comprehensive written and photographic record of the most important Indian peoples west of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers who still, as he later put it, retained "to a considerable degree their primitive customs and traditions." Though he initially agreed with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, that Indians could not survive unless they forfeited their traditional lifeways and adapted to a new culture, over time, he grew to respond to the government's policy towards Indians with fierce anger.


In 1906 J.P. Morgan offered Curtis $75,000 to produce a series on North American Indians. The series was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs, with Morgan was to receiving 25 sets of the series and 500 original prints. During the work, Curtis took over 40,000 photographs from over 80 tribes. When completed, 222 sets were published, which not only held photographs; but, also documentation on Native American traditional life, biographical sketches, tribal lore and history, and descriptions of traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs. In some cases, his documentation is the only recorded history. Edward's goal was to document the way of life before it disappeared, writing 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."




He also made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian language and music. The series was issued in limited editions from 1907-1930.


In October, 1916, Edward's wife Clara filed for divorce and three years later was granted Curtis' photographic studio and all of his original camera negatives as her part of the settlement. However, Curtis wouldn't stand for it, and went to the studio with his daughter, Beth, and destroyed all of his original glass negatives, rather than have them become her property. However, she went on to manage the studio with her sister.


Continued Next Page


Blackfoot Indian and Teepee

Siksika Blackfoot Indian and Teepee, 1927, Edward S. Curtis. This image available for photo prints & commercial downloads HERE!


Sioux Prayer to the Mystery

Sioux Prayer to the mystery by Edward S. Curtis. This image available for photo prints & commercial downloads HERE!


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