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Edward S. Curtis - images of North American Indians
Edward Sheriff Curtis
Preserving the Past
Edward S. Curtis left us a valuable legacy with his images of North American Indians. Curtis was an ethnologist, photographer and author. He was born February 16, 1868 and died on October 19, 1952 at the age of 84, in the home of his daughter in Whittier, California.
Curtis had visionary instincts about the Native American people and dedicated most of his life to preserving their culture through images. His desire was to let the people of the tribe to live forever in his photos. He compiled all his images and work in a twenty volume collection titled 'The North American Indian'.
Early days of the Camera
Man, since early cave days, has always desired to record history in an artistic manner. For centuries masters of paintings have given us truly remarkable portrayals of history and mankind.
In 1826 Joseph-Nicephore Niepce of France took this a step further and developed a method of taking a picture, which he called a heliograph, which produced an image after eight hours of exposure. About ten years later Macques Mande Daguerre found another way to reproduce an image. The 'Daguerreotype' gave a permanent image after just 20 minutes of exposure and photography then became the 'thing' to give us lasting memories.
By the time Edward S. Curtis took it upon himself to photograph and document the life of the Native Americans, the camera had developed into a much better version, able to take images quicker and transfer them to glass plate negatives. The images were called photogravures.
Canyon de Chelly 1904, by Curtis
A Love of Outdoor Life
As a boy, Curtis spent a lot of time in the outdoors with his father, Johnson Curtis. Johnson was a preacher for United Brethren Church. The family moved to Minnesota in 1874. Edward would often go on the canoe trips with his father and camp outdoors with him as they visited members of the congregation.
Johnson taught his son river navigation and good camping skills. Father and son shared a love of outdoor life. This type of life prepared Edward well for the journeys he would take later in life while photographing Native Americans in their natural life styles. Curtis became one of the finest photographers and ethnologists of all time.
The documentation of Native American culture and history could have been lost if not for the invention of the camera and the dedication of people like Edward Sheriff Curtis. In his life he managed to portray the Native American as no one had done before or since. He made wax cylinder recordings of their language and music, took over 40,000 images, documented mythologies, history, population, the types of foods they ate, what their dwellings were like, their customs and beliefs.
There is not a more beautiful collection of memories and history of these peoples than the photography of Curtis, who gave us the historical images of Native Americans from 1900 - 1930, which he put into a collection of 20 volumes with 300 pages of text and 75 photogravures each. He also provided a portfolio of at least 36 photogravures to accompany each volume.
Storytelling, Apache men
Hopi Snake Gathering for a Ceremony
Life With the Tribes
For 30 years Curtis traveled lands from the Mexican border to Northern Alaska to document the images and lives of over 80 tribes west of the Mississippi. Often, his wife and children accompanied him, along with his assistant, William Myers. It was his determination and goal to make sure that the Native American people and their cultures, ceremonies, customs and beliefs would have a place in history before they vanished, which was the common opinion of scholars in his day.
Curtis did not just take pictures of the Indians in their daily life patterns and their landscapes and leave on another journey. With his assistant William Myers he stayed with them, talked with them and lived their daily life with them -- he became a part of their culture.
In 1900 he observed the Sun Dance of the Blood, Blackfoot and Algonquin tribes in Montana. He stayed with them that whole summer, experiencing their ceremonial traditions. That same year he visited on the Hopi reservation in Arizona. He journeyed to and lived with many other tribes during his years of work.
His determination and enthusiasm drove him to document as much as he could, sending the glass plate negatives to his studio in Seattle where Adolph Muhr developed the images. After Muhr died in 1913, Ella McBride, his assistant, took over the dark room work.
A Legacy and Refusal to Vanish
In 1904 Curtis travelled to the east coast to meet with Frederick Webb Hodge of the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology. Hodge listened to Curtis' plan, was as enthusiastic as Curtis and became the editor of the entire North American Indian project. He believed in Curtis and his vision and they became lifelong friends.
The Native American tribes, their traditions, cultures, beliefs and ceremonies have not vanished. They are still very much alive, and thanks to dedicated photographers like Curtis, their images from the past are still with us today, giving these people beautiful memories and images of their ancestors and making others aware of the people that refused to vanish.
Curtis left us with a legacy of how life was in the Northwest Indian tribes. These beautiful images come alive when gazed upon. When looking at these photographs that Curtis took, it is as though one is transported back in time, standing next to him and seeing a proud and noble people. Curtis was able to grasp the beauty and pride of the Native American and preserve it for all to see and enjoy.
President Roosevelt was a strong supporter of Curtis' work and wrote the following comments in the foreword to Volume I of The North American Indian.
In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because it is truthful. …because of his extraordinary success in making and using his opportunities, has been able to do what no other man ever has done; what, as far as we can see, no other man could do. Mr. Curtis in publishing this book is rendering a real and great service; a service not only to our own people, but to the world of scholarship everywhere.— Theodore Roosevelt
The Old Time Warrior, Nez Perce, by Curtis, 1910
Sons of a Yakima Chief, 1910, by Curtis
Edward S. Curtis
Note From Author
All images by Edward S. Curtis are in the Public Domain and courtesy of the Library of Congress. Since I have a very strong affinity to all Native American tribes, their cultures, traditions, and beliefs, I am grateful to Edward Sheriff Curtis who dedicated so much of his life to documenting valuable information on the life and times of the Native American peoples.
© 2013 Phyllis Doyle Burns