Anne Darling Photography

Photographs of Native Americans

Of all the photographs of native Americans, the work of Edward Curtis (1868-1952) stands head and shoulders above the rest. His work forms one of the most amazing series of photographs of all time.

Curtis's highly acclaimed magnum opus, entitled The North American Indian, is a towering achievement in this field.

photographs of native americans
Nez Perce warrior on his horse: Photo by Edward S. Curtis

In 1885 at the age of seventeen Curtis started his photographic career as an apprentice photographer although he didn't make his first portrait of a native American until 1895 when he met and photographed Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. Then in 1900 he was invited to take part in an expedition to photograph the Blackfeet Indians in Montana.

photographs of native americans
A Taos girl, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front: Photo by Edward S. Curtis

This set the stage for his magnum opus which he started in 1906 when John Pierpont Morgan an American financier and art collector, financed Curtis to create a series of photographs of native Americans.

photographs of native americans
Qahatika girl, Arizona: Photo by Edward S. Curtis

Curtis produced 40,000 photographic images of over 80 tribes as well as a huge number of recordings of their language and music, and a wealth of material describing their life and customs. The series was to be in 20-volume sets with 1,500 photographs in each set. In total, 222 sets were published.

photographs of native americans
Running Rabbit, half-length portrait, standing, facing front, holding a staff, c. 1900. Running rabbit was a chief of the Siksika First Nation in southern Alberta, Canada: Photo by Edward S. Curtis

When Curtis died, aged 84, in 1952 the brief obituary in the New York Times referred to the fact that he was an international authority on the North American Indian and noted, almost as an afterthought, that: "Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer".

photographs of native americans
Paviotso man standing, marking side of glacial boulder that already has petroglyphs on it, c. 1924: Photo by Edward S. Curtis

But although Curtis' gifts as a photographer are undeniable and his body of work is a huge achievement which allows us a glimpse at the past, to a time that has now disappeared and will never be replaced, his methodology has been severely criticized by anthropologists and ethnologists. Not only did Curtis manipulate his images but they were often staged and he sometimes used actors and props in ways that mispresented the facts concerning their culture and daily lives.

photographs of native americans
An Atsina Indian, 1909: Photo by Edward S. Curtis

But Curtis respected his subjects, and was humble and open enough to want to learn from them concerning their way of life and culture without prejudice. In return the Indians trusted him and allowed him to photograph them at work, at play, with their families and during their ceremonies. And because of that trust, Curtis had the freedom to build a totally unique body of work that stands as a testimony to the beauty of a way of life that has now disappeared.

photographs of native americans
Chaiwa-Tewa, 1922: Photo by Edward S. Curtis photographs of native americans
Desert Cahuilla woman: Photo by Edward S. Curtis photographs of native americans
Quilcene boy, 1913: Photo by Edward S. Curtis photographs of native americans
Assiniboin Man, 1909: Photo by Edward S. Curtis photographs of native americans
Acoma woman: Photo by Edward S. Curtis

Curtis' photographs of native Americans has been preserved by the Northwestern University in Chicago. The University has digitized the whole of The North American Indian, the complete 20 volumes of text and photogravure images including the portfolio of photogravure plates. I promise you it is well worth a visit!

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