Friday, February 12, 2016

Edward S. Curtis: Anthropologist-Photographer of A Vanishing People

Mosa--A Mojave Girl by Edward S. Curtis (1903)

He gave everything to his art.  Over the course of his career, he compiled an amazing anthropological and photographic record of Native American cultures and people.  He did so as they, and the wild western United States and Canada they inhabited, disappeared into the dust of history.  I first encountered his work when I researched George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull for a recent book review.

Princess Angeline by Edward S. Curtis (1899)

Edward S. Curtis was born in Wisconsin in 1868 as America was starting its long climb back from the Civil War.  He dropped school at the end of sixth grade and built his first camera so he could apprentice with a number of artists in this emerging field.  His first American Indian photograph was of Princess Angeline, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle.  The Pacific Northwest and Blackfoot country became his backdrop as he crisscrossed the territories photographing the last of the tribes at the turn of the 20th century.

With a loan from financier J.P. Morgan, Curtis prepared to complete his life’s work: documenting American Indian culture and people in a colossal 20-volume study.  He would race against time to finish the project before they disappeared.  It was both an anthropological and artistic watershed moment.  The end product would be massive with narratives and 1500 photographs.  The $75,000 from Morgan did not include a salary for Curtis to cover the twenty years it would take to complete the project, so he was always one step ahead of financial and artistic ruin.  He lived his art, and it was his only obsession.  His marriage broke up.  He spent years away from his family.  In the end, his wife divorced him and was awarded many of his glass negatives.  He went to his studio and smashed them rather than surrender them to the courts.  He died broke here in Los Angeles in 1952.  His obituary in The New York Times ran to only 77 words.

The results of Curtis’ life work were astounding:  more than 40,000 images; 10,000 recordings of Native American language and song; journals and documents where he recorded recipes, traditions, clothing, games and daily life.  Much of this work is now in archives across the country and has not seen widespread publication.  His 20-volume set of photographs, narratives and text is available online at the Curtis Library at Northwestern University.  Additional sets and photographs not included in the original volumes are available at other research libraries across the country.

Hopi Mother by Edward S. Curtis (1906)

Below is a ten minute video of Edward S. Curtis’ life and work recently posted on The Economist website.  It is powerful and well worth viewing for the incredible story of this artist-anthropologist and his work.


  1. Incredible story. What an irony that he felt compelled to smash his own negatives.

  2. It was truly a labor of love and passion, and like many tortured artist, he labored in obscurity. Hopefully he is coming into his own now. Still, it is strange that a magazine like The Economist features him and not BBC History or Smithsonian or even National Geographic. Thanks for reading and commenting, Jonathan. Always great to hear from you.


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