Curtis, Edward

American (1868-1952)

Best known as a photographer of Native Americans in the western US, Edward Sheriff Curtis, took over 40,000 images of over 80 American Indian tribes in his lifetime. Though born in Wisconsin, Curtis’ family moved several times, always west, until he became a partner with a Seattle photography studio in 1887. While there, he photographed Angeline, a Native American princess; this image earned the young artist an invitation to document an expedition to the Blackfoot Indians in Montana in 1900. Curtis accepted the offer and found himself captivated by the landscapes and people he observed.

It was with great pleasure, then, that Curtis accepted J.P. Morgan’s 1906 $75,000 offer to produce an epic photographic series on the North American Indian, documenting traditions before they vanished completely. Curtis traveled on horseback or wagon over primitive paths and roads. Beyond taking photographs, he wrote an ethnography as well, collecting interviews, music, history and traditions. Though Curtis was later criticized for a stereotypical portrayal which obscured the ways that these people were struggling to fit into Western culture and for removing traces of culture that would have made them appear less savage, there is no doubt that he was motivated by a desire for preserving a record of “what had been,” even while perpetuating myths that “things still were.” A nasty divorce settlement in 1919 awarded Curtis’ wife with all of his negatives; to prevent her possession, he destroyed them all. He tried his hand in Hollywood as a cameraman for Cecil B. DeMille, but eventually suffered a physical and nervous breakdown, living the rest of his life in penury and obscurity.