American photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis has become synonymous with the Western frontier. However, he was born in Whitewater, Wisconsin to Reverend Johnson Asahel and Ellen Sheriff Curtis on February 16, 1868, the second of four children. The poor family moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota in 1874, where Rev. Curtis supported his family by selling groceries. The young Curtis quit school in the sixth grade to focus on his love of photography. By his early teens, he had already constructed his first camera, and after the deaths of his older brother in 1885 and father in 1887, the support of his family fell on his youthful shoulders. A near-fatal logging accident in 1890 changed his life and his career. During his long convalescence, Clara Phillips, who would later become his wife, cared for him. He decided that when he was fully recovered, he would go into business for himself.
When his brickyard enterprise failed, Mr. Curtis sold the business and invested in a Seattle photographic gallery. His natural wanderlust lent itself to landscape photography, and within a few years, Mr. Curtis became the Official Photographer of the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899. His professional reputation soon caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, whose assistance he sought to secure financial patronage. At the time, the President was embroiled in economic disputes with some of the nation’s wealthiest men and was therefore in no position to ask for any type of financial favors. Nevertheless, Mr. Curtis became acquainted with banking magnate J. P. Morgan, whose deep pockets were instrumental in funding the young photographer's ambitous project to photograph the American West, specifically the Native American peoples, who first attracted his attention when he observed a Piegan Sun Dance while traveling through Montana.
For the next three decades, Mr. Curtis worked on his photographic masterpiece, collectively known as The North American Indian, 40,000 photographs that would eventually be condensed into 20 volumes. Mr. Curtis sought to capture images of Native American ceremonial rituals and traditions he feared would disappear in twentieth-century America. He believed it was his moral responsibility to preserve this uniquely American way of life for future generations. One of Mr. Curtis’s early assistants - Imogen Cunningham - would later achieve greater recognition than her employer and mentor. By the time Mr. Curtis published his last volume in 1930, interest in Native Americans had waned due in large part to the Great Depression. His nomadic lifestyle ruined both his marriage and his health. Edward S. Curtis spent his last years in virtual obscurity until he died of a heart attack on October 19, 1952 at the age of 84.
Since his death, the authenticity of his photographs have become the topic of heated debate. Several of his pictures of Crow war parties on horseback have drawn derision from contemporary Native American tribes as historically inaccurate. His idealized concept of their traditions has reinforced stereotypes that continue to exist today. However, despite their moral flaws, Mr. Curtis's Native American portraits are aesthetically appealing and accentuate the visual allure of soft focus photography. In 1996, the Museum of New Mexico purchased several glass-plate negatives that were not included in The North American Indian, and these images have since been widely studies and published. Edward S. Curtis was one of America’s most gifted regional photographers, and his work deserves to be judged for its artistic merits, not its historical shortcomings.
2000 Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated (Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Press).
2009 The Image Taker: The Selected Stories and Photographs of Edward S. Curtis (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, Inc.), pp. 166-167.
2000 “The Imperfect Eye of Edward Curtis,” Humanities, Vol. XXI (Washington, DC: National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities), pp. 38-41.
2005 Where Custer Fell (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press), p. 23.
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