Home > 999. Lost Landscapes, C. The Thinker As Hero > Edward Curtis, Photographer of the American Indian

Edward Curtis, Photographer of the American Indian

During his long life, the photographer Edward Curtis (1868-1952) created perhaps the most authentic and certainly the largest photographic record of the American Indian. He took more than 40,000 photographs of Native Americans, determined not just to record, but also to document his subjects.

The son of a minister, Curtis grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Fascinated with photography, he dropped out of school in the sixth grade and built his own camera. At 17, he apprenticed with a photographer in St. Paul. 

After some years, the pace of Curtis’s life began to pick up. In 1892, he married Clara Phillips; the first of their four children, Harold, was born the following year. When his parents moved to Seattle 1896, Curtis and his family went with them.

Fate struck. Curtis photographed his first Native American, Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle (1895). A few years later, he was invited to join the Harriman Alaska Expedition, and after that, he photographed the Blackfoot people of Montana (1900).

By this point, Curtis had made thousands of images of Indians, and financier J.P. Morgan offered to publish his work. The product of this collaboration, The North American Indian, was issued in twenty volume and contained more than 1,500 photographs. The final volume was published in 1930.

“The information that is to be gathered … respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.”

–Edward Curtis, preface to The North American Indian

Curtis was an ethnographer, dedicated to recording the Indian’s way of life before it vanished; in addition to his photographs, he made wax cylinder recordings of Indian music and language, wrote down tribal folklore and history, and noted down facts of everyday life such as food, clothing, recreation, and funeral customs. Not infrequently, these materials are our only surviving information.

Such devotion to his calling, however, came at a cost to Curtis. In 1917, his wife divorced him. He was not a good businessman and was arrested once for failure to pay alimony. In 1924, he sold an original ethnographic film, The Land of the Headhunters for $1,500; the film had cost him $20,000 to make.

Despite these troubles, Curtis continued his work. Much of the material he produced is now part of a special archive at the Library of Congress.

His work remains an astounding gift to the American people.

Photos: Top: Edward Curtis; Middle: Princess Angeline; Bottom: Apache, Morning Bath. All photos: Edward Curtis, WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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  1. aubrey
    May 9, 2012 at 3:42 am

    I love the portraits especially – they have an almost architectural sensibililty and delicacy. He also had a sense of the relationship between man and the vastness of an unknown, wild landscape. That graceful loneliness. One gets a thrill looking at these photographs, knowing that no one had any idea these people even existed – or that they shared the same humanity.

    • May 9, 2012 at 6:23 pm

      aubrey: it can take a poet to fully appreciate one, and you feel Curtis’s genius right down to the bone. But the great untold story of the “vanishing race” is its survival–I am working with the idea of writing a lengthy poem set in Martinsburg around the figure of a tall, striking Indian/Black man I saw once walking down the street. No one wants to admit it, but the Indians are with us still… RT

  2. May 9, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    I love Curtis’ stuff. I am something of an expert on Plains Indian hairstyles. His photographs helped my study tremendously.

  3. May 9, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    Margo: I’m developing an interest in Indians myself, mostly as a result of living in Martinsburg, where many pass though on their peregrinations (it’s hard to change an age-old pattern of life). Am reading a wonderful book, Angie Debo’s A History of the American Indian, and will probably post on it soon. The book is painful reading, but also contains some beautiful surprises. Eric

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