Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Edward Sheriff Curtis

One of my favorite Curtis Photos, "Entering The Badlands," c.1905

Edward Sheriff Curtis was one of the greatest American photographers (like Michael Darter), whose passion would provide us with much of what we know about Native Americans today. His collection entitled "The North American Indian" took thirty years of his life and cost him everything, from his health to his wife. With financial backers like J.P. Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt (whose daughter's wedding he photographed) he still managed to die an impoverished, relatively unknown artist.
He left the world with the most comprehensive photographic record of Native people ever produced.

Edward S. Curtis self portrait

Selling his family's brick yard business in Wisconsin and mortgaging his family farm in 1891, he bought a photo studio in Seattle, Washington. The oldest daughter of Chief Siahl (Seattle's namesake) was his first subject. While climbing on Mt. Rainier some time later, he would meet George Grinnell, then the influential editor of the outdoor publication "Forest and Stream." Grinnell was a well travelled authority on Indians and recipient of a grant to lead an Alaskan expedition to photograph the natives there. He would take Mr. Curtis with him.

"Sundance Pledgers" c.1906

"Pima Matron" c.1907

"Klamath Warrior Headdress" c. 1923

"Octopus Hunter"

"Hopi Girl" c.1905

Grinnell visited the Plains for twenty years or more, and in 1900 he took Curtis with him to Montana to photograph the annual Sun Dance held by Blood, Blackfoot, and Piegan tribes. Curtis felt these people would not last, and all their culture would soon be lost. He began to collect their images and published twenty books from 1907 until 1930. Photographing people with names like "Bear's Belly," "Touch Her Dress" and "Little Wolf", he helped preserve the ways of a people that in many respects and in most places no longer exist, except for in his life's work.

"Chief Garfield" c. 1904

Growing up the grandchild of Chocktaw woman (who walked the Trail Of Tears from Louisiana to Oklahoma under Cavalry supervision as a child), and having visited many of the great reservations and tribal lands in the American Southwest, Curtis' work is especially important for me. A recent book about his often controversial life and
subsequent work has recently surfaced, entitled "Edward S. Curtis, Visions Of The First Americans," and written by Don Gulbrandsen. It is an enormous book with very large slides of his work across the continent. I would highly recommend this work both as an educational tool for children and as a great piece to add to your library. The photographs are amazing, often emotional, and something that will keep you turning it's large and coppery pages.

"At The Old Well Of Acoma" c.1904

"Chief Joseph"

"Acoma From The South" c. 1904

"Hopi, Watching The Dancers" c. 1906

The cover of "The North American Indian."

Edward Curtis died in Los Angeles, California on October 19th, 1952. He may still be survived by one of his three children, Katherine Curtis, who was born in 1909. It's possible, because Lydia's grandmother was born in 1910, and she just celebrated her 98th birthday Wednesday of last week...and she can still walk.

"Eclipse Dance" c.1910

Another book, "Indian Days Of The Long Ago."


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