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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
Chaiwa-Tewa, 1922: Photo by Edward S. Curtis
Desert Cahuilla woman: Photo by Edward S. Curtis
Quilcene boy, 1913: Photo by Edward S. Curtis
Assiniboin Man, 1909: Photo by Edward S. Curtis
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!
Top of Page