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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Edward S. Curtis

Names:
Born: Edward Sheriff Curtis 
Dates:  1868, 16 February - 1952, 19 October
Born:  US, WI, nr. White Water
Died:  US, CA, Los Angeles
Active:  US
 
  
American photographer who created the 20 volume ‘The North American Indian‘ (1907-1930) - this is almost certainly the most extraordinary artistic work concentrating on an ethnic group.
 
His obituary in the New York Times (Oct 20, 1952, p.23) read:
 
"Los Angeles, Oct. 19 - Edward S. Curtis, internationally known authority on the history of the North American Indian, died today at the home of a daughter, Mrs. Bess Magnuson. His age was 84.
 
Mr. Curtis devoted his life to compiling Indian history. His research was done under the patronage of the late financier, J. Pierpont Morgan. The foreword for the monumental set of Curtis books was written by President Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer."

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Edward S. Curtis
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

 
  
Edward Sheriff Curtis produced the most extensive documentation of Native American culture of the twentieth century. Published in twenty volumes (as bound books with accompanying oversize portfolios of loose prints), The North American Indian, included more than two thousand photographic images and detailed texts on the lifestyles of over eighty tribes. Curtis’s work is both naturalistic and pictorial; his subject matter clearly makes him a naturalist and his self-conscious artistic intentions (most visibly in his soft-focus effects) also classifies him as a pictorialist.
 
Curtis grew up in rural Wisconsin, after being born near Whitewater, on February 16, 1868. At age twelve, he built his own camera, and five years later moved with his family to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he apprenticed with a photographer. In 1887, he relocated to Puget Sound, Washington, with his father, who died a year later. In the early 1890s, after his mother and siblings joined him, Curtis helped support the family by becoming a partner in a small Seattle photographic studio. By the end of the decade, he was the city’s leading portrait photographer.
 
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Curtis exhibited in both professional and pictorial exhibitions. His work was seen in the shows at the annual conventions of the Photographers’ Association of America, the national organization of professionals, held in such locales as Milwaukee and Niagara Falls. In March 1907, he presented a solo show of his work at the California Camera Club in San Francisco, and the next year he participated in the members’ exhibition of the Camera Club of New York.
 
In contrast to Curtis’s high-society studio clientele, the country’s neglected indigenous population of Native Americans began drawing his interest in the late 1890s. In 1900, after going on the Harrison Alaskan Expedition to the Arctic Circle the previous year, he went on excursions to Montana, where he witnessed such sacred rituals as the Sun Dance, and to Arizona, where he photographed three separate tribes. Curtis was soon convinced that the American Indian deserved a mammoth documentary project far beyond his own resources. In 1906, he was fortunate to obtain substantial funding from J. Pierpont Morgan, and the very next year published the first two volumes of The North American Indian. The books feature quality paper, elegant letterpress-printed text, rich photogravures illustrations, and leather bindings.
 
Nonetheless, it took another twenty-three years and untold personal sacrifices for Curtis to finish the set. Due to the time he increasingly spent on the project, he eventually lost his Seattle studio and his wife. And, despite Morgan’s generosity, Curtis had to do additional fund raising, frequently lecturing and presenting slide shows. In 1914, he released Land of the Headhunters, a film that was ethnographically valuable but financially a loss for him. In 1919, one of his daughters, Beth, opened a photographic studio in Los Angeles, which became his new base of operations for publishing the remainder of The North American Indian. Its last volume appeared in 1930, but only about three hundred of the projected five hundred sets were ultimately issued.
 
After a short flurry of interest over the project’s completion, little attention was paid to it for the rest of the photographer’s life. Edward S. Curtis died of a heart attack at his daughter’s house in Whittier, California, on October 19, 1952, poor and unrecognized. 
  
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012) 
  
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission. 
  
Date last updated: 1 June 2013. 
  
SHARED BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION PROJECT 
  
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
 
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.
 
  

Biography provided by Focal Press 
  
From 1900 to 1930, Curtis photographed about 80 Native American tribes of the Northwest, Southwest, and Great Plains, producing some 40,000 images, which resulted in The North American Indian (1907–1930). Curtis was not an objective documentarian. He suppressed evidence of assimilation and manipulated his images through romantic, soft-focus pictorial methods to create emotional and nostalgic views of the vanishing noble savage. Although criticized for treating native people as exotica, Curtis’ fabricated images provide the only evidence of artifacts, costumes, ceremonies, dances, and games of many tribes’ previous existence. Nobody wanted to look at the realism of reservation despair, but with the Native Americans’ complicity, Curtis used his narrative skills to recreate idealized symbols of a vanished time in the West and represent the timeless myth of the virtuous primitive. 
  
(Author: Robert Hirsch - Independent scholar and writer) 
  
Michael Peres (Editor-in-Chief), 2007, Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition, (Focal Press) [ISBN-10: 0240807405, ISBN-13: 978-0240807409] 
(Used with permission) 
  

Further research

 
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Thumbnail
Edward S. Curtis
Self portrait of Edward Sheriff Curtis 
1899
 
  
Family history 
  
If you are related to this photographer and interested in tracking down your extended family we can place a note here for you to help. It is free and you would be amazed who gets in touch. 
  
alan@luminous-lint.com
 
  
 
  

Exhibitions on this website

Theme: Documentary
ThumbnailEdward Sheriff Curtis - The North American Indian - Portfolio IX (1967) 
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ThumbnailEdward Sheriff Curtis - The North American Indian 
PhVTitle | Lightbox | Checklist
 
  

Visual indexes

 
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Supplemental information

 

Edward Sheriff Curtis
American, 1868-1952

Edward S. Curtis was born near Whitewater, Wisconsin. His father, a Civil War veteran and minister, moved the family to Minnesota, where Curtis became interested in photography. In 1892 he purchased an interest in a photographic studio in Seattle. He married and the couple had four children. He later settled in Los Angeles, where he operated photographic studios at various times on La Cienega Boulevard and in the Biltmore Hotel. As a friend of Hollywood producer Cecil B. DeMille, Curtis was commissioned to make film stills for some of DeMille's films, including the epic, The Ten Commandments. In 1899, he became the official photographer for the Edward Harriman expedition to Alaska and developed an interest Native American culture.
 
Curtis is best known for his documentation of Native American cultures published as The North American Indian. From about 1900 to 1930 he surveyed more than 100 tribes ranging from the Inuits to the Hopi, making more than 40,000 photographs. He made portraits of important and well-known figures of the time, including Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Red Cloud, and Medicine Crow.
 
Curtis’ project was time consuming and complex, because he needed vehicles, mechanical equipment, skilled technicians, scholars and researchers and the cooperation of the Indian tribes. His working method was to dispatch assistants to make tribal visits months in advance. Curtis then traveled by horseback or horse drawn wagon to visit the tribes. Once on site Curtis and his assistants interviewed the people and then photographed them outside, in an indigenous structure, or inside his studio tent with an adjustable skylight.
 
Curtis used a field or view camera, producing his images on glass plates. He developed his images in the field, then created a proof from each image, and sent it, with instructions, back to his Seattle studio where manager Adolph Muhr made the decisions relating to exposure time, retouching, and enlargement. The North American Indian consisted of 20 bound volumes containing approximately 2200 photogravures, written information about the Native American cultures Curtis photographed, and 20 supplementary photogravure portfolios. Each volume was devoted to a single or sometimes multiple groups, depending on their geographic proximity. The photogravures were hand-pulled from a steel-coated copper plate and then printed on one of three types of paper; a rice paper called vellum, a heavier water-marked paper known as Van Gelder and Japon tissue (mounted on vellum). Each volume was bound in leather and edged in gilt. In addition to the published volumes, Curtis’ output also included gelatin silver prints, platinum prints and orotones, such as At The Old Well at Acoma (1906).
 
Curtis intended to record Native American culture which was disappearing in the face of encroaching modern civilization. However, to preserve these vanishing native cultures, he constructed his portraits using “authentic” costumes, props, and staged ceremonies. Occasionally he used the incorrect cultural artifacts and costumes to document a particular tribe. Ironically, Curtis believed that the only way that Native Americans could survive was through assimilation. The last volume of The North American Indian was published in 1930. Although accounts vary, about 272 sets were sold. Eventually his 30-year project took its toll. Curtis’ wife divorced him, and later he suffered a physical and nervous break down. Declining interest in the American Indian and the Depression ultimately reduced sales. Curtis spent the remaining years of his life with his daughter Beth and her husband in Los Angeles. In 1952 Curtis died in Los Angeles, virtually unknown. Fortunately, Curtis’ work was discovered in the late 1970s-1980s.
 
His work is in several major public collections including the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian and several major universities.
 
Source: The Center for Creative Photography, the J. Paul Getty Museum, The Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division and the Public Broadcasting Service.
 
[Contributed by the Etherton Gallery] 
  
 

Internet biographies

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer.Show on this siteGo to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online (www.groveart.com) has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
Show on this siteGo to website
The Cleveland Museum of Art, USA has a biography on this photographer. [Scroll down the page on this website as the biography may not be immediately visible.]Show on this siteGo to website
 

Internet resources

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Edward Sheriff Curtis 
http://www.pbs.org ... 
This is part of the excellent American Masters series of television programs broadcast by PBS in the USA. 
  
 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

 
• Auer, Michele & Michel 1985 Encyclopedie Internationale Des Photographes de 1839 a Nos Jours / Photographers Encylopaedia International 1839 to the present (Hermance, Editions Camera Obscura) 2 volumes [A classic reference work for biographical information on photographers.] 
  
• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.122 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
  
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.126 
  
• International Center of Photography 1999 Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection (New York: A Bulfinch Press Book) p.213 [Includes a well written short biography on Edward S. Curtis with example plate(s) earlier in book.] 
  
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Edward S. Curtis.] 
  
• Witkin, Lee D. and Barbara London 1979 The Photograph Collector’s Guide (London: Secker and Warburg) p.116-117 [Long out of print but an essential reference work - the good news is that a new edition is in preparation.] 
  
 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

 
• Gruber, Renate and L. Fritz Gruber 1982 The Imaginary Photo Museum (New York: Harmony Books) p.245 
  
• Naef, Weston 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum - Handbook of the Photographic Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) p.122 
  
• Newhall, Beaumont 1982 The History of Photography - Fifth Edition (London: Secker & Warburg) [One or more photographs by Edward S. Curtis are included in this classic history.] 
  
• Sobieszek, Robert A. and Deborah Irmas 1994 the camera i: Photographic Self-Portraits (Los Angeles: LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art) p.213, Plate 11 [When the Audrey and Sydney Irmas collection was donated to LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1992 the museum gained a remarkable collection of self portraits of notable photographers. If you need a portrait of Edward S. Curtis this is a useful starting point.] 
  

Collections

Photographic collections are a useful means of examining large numbers of photographs by a single photographer on-line. 
  

 
In the 1990 survey of 535 American photographic collections Edward S. Curtis was represented in 107 of the collections. Source: Andrew H. Eskind & Greg Drake (eds.) 1990 Index to American Photographic Collections [Second Enlarged Edition] (Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co.) 
  
 
  
 
  
 
  
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