Edward S. Curtis: Photographs of Disappeared World

During 30 years Edward S. Curtis took over 40,000 images and made detailed records of the traditional way of life or the Native American Peoples. However, even Curtis is not without controversy as he occasionally supplied “traditional” costumes to his subjects if they did not own any traditional clothing. He also photographed reenactments of traditional and historical activities such as camp moves, battles, and ceremonies. While purists decry these reenactments, they were well received by his Native American subjects (who called him “Shadow Catcher”) and are in many cases our only record of such activities.

Edward Sheriff Curtis was born in Wisconsin in 1868 to parents Ellen and Johnson Curtis. His sister, Eva, was born in 1870 and his brother, Asahel, in 1874. As a boy Edward often accompanied his father on canoe trips to visit members of the congregation. His experience camping outdoors with his father helped prepare him for the extensive field work he would do later in his career.

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As an adolescent Edward constructed his own camera with the help of the then popular manual Wilson’s Photographics. It is also possible that he worked for a photographer in St. Paul for a period of time before his family moved west. Because his father’s health was not good and his older brother Ray had married and moved to Portland, Oregon, Curtis took on much of the responsibility of supporting the family.

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In the Fall of 1887 Edward and his father traveled to Washington Territory and by Winter had settled in the Puget Sound. They were joined by Ellen Curtis and the other two children the following Spring. Shortly after their arrival Johnson Curtis contracted pneumonia and died. Edward then assumed primary responsibility for supporting the family. Although his income was meager, he was able to buy a camera. In 1892 he married Clara Phillips and opened a portrait studio in Seattle in partnership with Thomas Guptill. While their business was very successful, they parted ways in 1897 and Curtis renamed the business Edward S. Curtis, Photographer and Photoengraver.

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Edward S. Curtis was an entrepreneur, photographer, and enthusiast who dedicated much of his career to an idealized goal of recording traditional American Indian customs. His opinion of Indians as a primitive other race reflects the majority American perspective following the “conquest” of the west, promoting a “myth of a vanishing race, with the notion that Indians are historical features of an American landscape, not functioning members in a modern society”.

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By Curtis’s time American Indians had endured a highly destructive, centuries-long assault on their homelands, their societies, and their cultures in physical, spiritual, and emotional terms. Under the guise first of religion and then science, Euro-American invaders had stripped the indigenous communities of this continent of nearly all of their land and resources, and carried forth an all-out attack on their languages, religions, educational systems, family structures, and systems of governance. For centuries missionaries, soldiers and government officials led this assault. By Curtis’s time, humanitarian reformers, social and physical scientists, and artists lent their authority to these efforts as well.

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Edward Sheriff Curtis’ The North American Indian was a truly magnificent effort to record a vast amount of very many of these aboriginal cultures. Published between 1907 and 1930 in twenty volumes of illustrated text and twenty portfolios containing more than seven hundred large-sized photogravures, The North American Indian, which was issued in a very limited edition and sold rather expensively on a subscription basis, contains millions of words: descriptions of homelands; accounts of religious beliefs that some might find strange; accounts of tribal organizations ranging from the aristocratic to the casually democratic; records of ceremonies so subtle in their significance, or so seemingly bizarre, that an alien eyewitness could easily not understand what it all meant; versions of haunting myths, songs and stories; descriptions of domestic chores and of intricate and skilled arts and hunting practices; and heroic tales of arms and men. In short. The North American Indian is a monument in words and pictures to a range of cultures which most white men could not or would not see.

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In the course of the Sun Dance ceremonies–rituals of pain willingly suffered “for strength and visions”–that he witnessed during the visit, Curtis appears to have experienced a sense of mystical communion with the Indians, and out of it, together with Grinnell’s tutelage and further experience in the Southwest, came 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.”

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Yet again, perhaps because of his aesthetic–even religious–appreciation of the attractions of traditional Indian cultures, Curtis also regretted and elegized the Indians’ passing, and chose “The Vanishing Race“–his view of some Navajos entering a canyon, one head turned to look regretfully back–as the keynote picture for The North American Indian. And this complex of views did not remain stable: in later years, partly as a result of stories he heard about California settlers’ mistreatment of Indians, Curtis grew to respond to his government’s policy towards Indians–which he then saw not as inevitable but chosen–with fierce anger (as may be witnessed in his 1924 preface to Volume 13 of The North American Indian).

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When the present-day western person looks at Curtis’ view of Kenowun, a Nunivak Eskimo (picture below), he or she cannot but be aware that a representative of an “alien” society returns the gaze–the very accoutrements of her culture dangle between, threatening to hinder a relationship. Yet she is seen close up: her essential humanity smiles through. To expand the reader’s, the viewer’s, vision of humankind by presenting, via words and pictures, Indian peoples in their wondrous varieties: this is the ultimate objective–and achievement–of The North American Indian. For the viewer, the sense of the human family is enhanced. And this is most apparent in Curtis’ portraits.

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The Indians, with no thanks to the governments or dominant groups of the United States and Canada, are not vanishing. But Kenowun, for one, inheritor of a harsh existence and photographed in 1927, is surely dead now. Yet, too, she partakes of immortality in this image. I hope it is not sentimental to suggest that, with such Curtis images before the eyes and in mind, even modern-day western viewers–if in a different sense to that predicted by Chief Sealth’s speech–truly will never be “alone” in North America.

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