Edward Sheriff Curtis: 1868-1952

The Shadow Catcher

Originally Published in 1979

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Edward S. Curtis spent thirty-seven years in the field photographing, docu­menting and reconstructing life on the North American continent west of the Mississippi, as he believed it must have been before the arrival of the white man. He was a self-taught ethnographer, pro­fessional photographer, student of com­parative religions, and a rugged outdoorsman who could endure the harshest environment, both physically and mentally.

Curtis’ purpose was not merely to obtain photographs of Indians of the many tribes as they went about their daily pursuits but to emphasize the traditional aspects of Native American life for his own and future generations. His hope was that each turn of the page and each subsequent picture would inspire appreciation of that way of life.

What resulted from this dedicated labor was a magnum opus of twenty volumes of text accompanied by 1500 photogravure prints, 20 complete portfolios totaling 722 plates and a special de luxe edition. In 1910, the New York Herald wrote that this was “the most gigantic undertaking in the making of books since the King James edition of the Bible.”

Curtis was born near Whitewater, Wisconsin in 1868. His father was a circuit preacher and often took young Edward with him on his long treks through the Wisconsin and Minnesota wilderness. It was this early exposure to religion and unspoiled Nature that was the catalyst for his life work. He made his first camera out of boxes and a stereopticon lens, which his father brought back from his service in the Civil War.

During the 1880’s Curtis worked for a photographic gallery in St. Paul, experi­menting with the fundamentals of his new craft. He tried to operate a studio of his own but could not find enough clients to support it. When that failed, he worked for a year as foreman of track crews of the Soo Line Railroad in Minnesota. Meantime, his father became ill and it was decided that the family would move to the warmer climate of the southern end of Puget Sound in Washington Territory. In 1892, Curtis married a neighbor, Clara Phillips, and in the same year went into partnership with Henry Guptil in Seattle. Their business was studio photography, specializing in family portraits. At this time Curtis offered for sale his early sepia prints of Indian subjects.

As a result of the move to Washington Territory and his consequent exposure to the oppressed Native American peoples there, he became so aware of their dilemma that he chose them as his most preferred photographic subjects. He paid “Princess” Angelina, the daughter of Chief Sealth (whose name was later bastardized into Seattle), to pose for a dollar a picture. Curtis recalled, “This seemed to please her greatly and she indicated that she preferred to spend her time having pic­tures taken to digging clams.”

Curtis was also an avid mountaineer and he photographed many commercial views of Mt. Ranier. He was such an accom­plished climber that he led many groups to the summit—on one occasion 108 Kiwanians. During one climb he stumbled upon and led to safety a lost party of important “Scientificos” [Curtis’ word] which included Dr. C. Hart Merriman, Chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the U.S. Forestry Department, and George Bird Grinnel who was, besides being the editor of Forest and Stream magazine, the author of Blackfoot Lodge Tales and other volumes on the American Indians. Their political and national influence were a great asset to Curtis and later it was their encourage­ment that persuaded him to pursue his vast project. They engaged him to become one of the two official photographers accom­panying an expedition to Bering Sea in 1899, which they were sponsoring. The naturalist John Muir and the ornithologist John Burroughs also accompanied this expedition. Curtis made his first serious photographic studies of Indian life at this time.

At the invitation of Grinnel, Curtis spent a summer season in northern Montana among the Blackfoot. He was awed by the natural serenity, which con­fronted him there. From all appearances, there was little contamination from con­tact with white men. Clearly Curtis realized that this image of man in harmony with Nature was rapidly deteriorating amongst the Indian race, and he com­mitted himself to record the evidence of man’s harmonious place in a vanishing sacred unity of Man and Nature, which he saw exemplified there, and with which modern civilization had lost touch. Curtis regarded himself as a recorder of a “Vanishing Race.” He did not think of himself as an artist, and denied any refer­ence to his work as Art.

Curtis financed his own project of documentation for a period of nine years beginning in 1897. Three of his first photo­graphs, “The Clam Digger,” “Homeward,” and “The Mussel Gatherer,” won the grand prize in the National Photographic Exhibition held in Washington, D.C. in 1908. These photographs traveled inter­nationally, winning acclaim and prizes.

Theodore Roosevelt was impressed by an early exhibit of Curtis’ work in 1905 at the Washington Club, Washington, D.C., and felt that the project of photographing eighty North American Indian tribes must be properly financed and supported. Roosevelt introduced Curtis to the mag­nate J. P. Morgan who, after some hesita­tion, desired to see the photographs and texts put into a more permanent form. Furthermore, he instituted “The North American Indian, Inc.” which handled subscriptions, invested funds, and dis­pensed financial support to Curtis. After Morgan’s death, the Morgan Estate financed over half of the project.

Theodore Roosevelt wrote the introduc­tion to the first volume published in 1907. The editor of the text was the noted ethnologist Frederick Webb Hodge from the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution.

The material was collected and photo­graphed systematically; Curtis had a small staff that researched each tribal area west of the Mississippi. This was succeeded by photographic sessions covering high points brought out by the research. W. E. Meyers, a former reporter of the Seattle Star, was Curtis’ right-hand man. Meyers was an English literature major in college and had an unusual sensitivity to phonetics and language. He was able to record in short­hand the native dialogue at an amazing speed.

The photographic illustrations were produced as finely processed photogravure prints. They had been selected from 40,000 photographs taken between 1897 and 1930. The cameras Curtis used in the field were a 14×17 inch glass plate view camera, a 61/2×8 inch dry plate Reversible Black Premo view camera with a shutter speed of 1/25 of a second, and a 6×8 inch sheet film reflex model. There were no exposure meters and no filters. Each volume took one to two years to produce. He tried to publish and assemble the volumes at production line speed by send­ing completed parts of the volumes to the publisher, The University Press, in Cambridge, Mass. The pictures were hand printed from copperplates by John Andrew and Son, Boston. Five hundred copies were printed, but only 272 were bound. The cost of a subscription to the volumes and the portfolios was $3,000.

In 1911, financial difficulties forced Curtis to go on the road with a lanternslide lecture tour. It was hoped that this tour would stimulate new subscriptions. The illustrated lecture series was narrated by Curtis and accompanied by interludes of transcribed Indian music played by a theatrical orchestra. To Curtis himself this was an ordeal. Nevertheless, he staged a memorable Indian opera backed by a motion picture at Carnegie Hall in New York City in November 1911. Dr. G. B. Gordon, the director of the University Museum, upon seeing that presentation immediately made arrangements for the illustrated lecture to be given at this Museum.

Curtis also produced a movie entitled “In the Land of the Headhunters” in 1914. It is a love story acted by Kwakiutl actors. The movie at the time was a financial failure, but it has recently been restored, re-edited, and re-titled “In the Land of the War Canoes” by George Quimby at the University of Washington.

During the entire period of collecting the material for The North American Indian, Curtis became acutely aware of an American Native conception of life which denied the separation of the material and the spiritual and viewed opposites in a single continuum, and that this concept was in danger of extinction. Consequently, he was determined to record faithfully the full spectrum of Native American life. With the help of an interpreter and Meyers, he held interviews with elders, shamans, warriors, young men and women who related their tribal lore to him. Although Curtis was an amateur and lacked the scholarly training, insight, and erudition of a trained anthropologist, the deficiency was partially compensated for by first-hand narration. At one point while among the Kiowa, Curtis was told by an interpreter after endless hours spent attempting to trace origin myths, that what he was looking for was not here.

Curtis often arrived too late to record vital information. Collectors had gotten there before him. Sacred paraphernalia had already been sold to them. One of these collectors was George G. Heye who was assiduously assembling material for his new Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

On the other hand, Curtis was some­times able to obtain in a day esoteric information, which other men had spent lifetimes in a futile effort to gather. While there were times when the Indians’ distrust of all Whites was an obstacle which had to be overcome, often Curtis’ presence would be tolerated or ignored during religious procedures, so that he could observe these mysteries without prohibi­tion. Curtis even claimed to have actually participated in the Hopi Snake Society’s rituals, carrying the customary snake in his mouth, and to have passed through the arduous endurance tests required for tribal acceptance. Thus he was able to win the Indians’ confidence and was allowed to capture photographically these sacred tableaux, using either real participants or hired models. He paid his models with silver dollars, sides of beef, and auto­graphed photographs.

While his purpose was undoubtedly objective documentation, Curtis did employ a “painterly effect” in his work by retouching [his own word] the photo­graphs. This he did by instructions to his engravers in Boston.

Despite various tribulations and tests of human endurance, which delayed the work by years, the printing of this record of a vanishing culture was completed in 1930. Unfortunately, the prevailing economic depression doomed it to obscurity because of its cost and size.

Cite This Article

"Edward Sheriff Curtis: 1868-1952." Expedition Magazine 22, no. 1 (September, 1979): -. Accessed April 18, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/edward-sheriff-curtis-1868-1952/


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