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Edward S. Curtis Biography


Foreword-Theodore Roosevelt was moved to write in his foreword to Volume 1 of "the North American Indian "...Because of the singular combination of qualities with which he has been blessed, and because of his extraordinary success in making and using his opportunities (Mr. Curtis) has been able to do what no other man has ever done; what, as far as we can see, no other man could do. He is an artist who works out of doors and not in a closet. He is a close observer, whose qualities of mind and body fit him to make his observations out in the field, surrounded by the wild life he commemorates. He has lived on intimate terms with many different tribes of the mountains and the plains. He knows them as they hunt, as they travel, as they go about their various avocations on the march and in camp. He knows their medicine men and their sorcerers, their chiefs and warriors, their young men and maidens. He has not only seen their vigorous outward existence, but has caught glimpses. Such as few white men ever catch, into that strange spiritual and mental life of theirs; from whose inner most recesses all white men are forever barred...."

1868-Edward Sheriff Curtis was born in February, 1868 in White Water, Wisconsin. The Curtis family moved soon thereafter to Minnesota, and he grew up near the Chippewa, Menomini, and Winnebago Indian tribes. Curtis' interest in photography started in his teens when he built his own crude cameras and taught himself photography from self-help guides.

1887-Curtis and his father, Johnson Curtis, move to Washington territory. During the same year, the Reverend Curtis died and Edward was then responsible for his entire family. He farmed, fished, dug clams and did chores for neighbors, but nonetheless managed to buy his first camera.

1891-Curtis purchases a share in a photographic studio, which became known as Roth and Curtis, for $150. The studio lasts less than a year. Curtis then formed a partnership with Thomas Gustily as both Photographers and Photogravures.

1892-Curtis marries Clara Phillips. Clara brought three family members to live with the three family members from the Curtis family (mother, brother, and sister). The Curtis' would have four children." Around this time art became the aspiration of many photographers. Influences from painting, drawing, and printmaking found their way into photographs. Moreover, photographers began drawing and painting on negatives, and often employed printing processes such as platinotype, gum print, and photogravure to produce soft and atmospheric appearance akin to that achieved by the French Impressionistic painters. The movement known as Pictorials promoted personal vision and expression in photography."

1895-Curtis commences his Indian photography. It is certain that "Princess Angelina," daughter of Chief Seattle, was one of his first subjects. Curtis' reputation as a photographer was growing. Curtis invents gold and silver processes, which later will become 'goldtones' and "silver tints".

1896-1930-Beginning in 1896 and ending in 1930, Curtis photographs and documents every major Native American tribe, west of the Mississippi, taking over 40,000 negatives of eighty tribes.
1897-Partner, Thomas Gustily, leaves the studio, which now bears the name Edward S. Curtis, Photographer and Photo graver.

1898-Photographs expedition on Mt. Rainer and writes an article in "Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine" on the Yukon Territory (although he never visited, his brother Ashael did the work). Curtis wins first place in the Genre Class at the National Photographic Convention and won again the next year for "Evening on Puget Sound," "The Clam Digger," and "The Mussel Gatherer."

1899-Curtis joins the famous Harriman Expedition to Alaska, which was the last great nineteenth century survey to ascertain the economic potential of America's frontier. Curtis' relationship with Harriman, Robert Grinnel, a leading ethnographic expert on Native Americans and other members of the party had a great influence on the rest of his life. After a trip of nine thousand miles the party returned with five thousand pictures and over six hundred animal and plant species new to science. New glaciers were mapped and photographed and a new fjord was discovered. Curtis photographed many of the glaciers, but it was his Indian pictures on this trip which established his artistic genius. Curtis produced a souvenir album of photographs for the participants.

1900-Curtis travels to visit the Blackfoot Indians in Montana, his first known formal photographing venture. The purpose of the visit was to photograph the sun dance. Curtis described the ritual as "wild, terrifying, and elaborately mystifying." He sells his engraving business and took over the studio of Frank La Roche, another famous photographer of Alaska and the Indians.

1901-The formal beginning of the then self and family financed project to study all of the North American Indian tribes. Curtis feels that the project will take fifteen years; it takes thirty. Curtis is assisted in most of the field work by W.E. Myers. Curtis visits Arizona and New Mexico to photograph the Hopi, Zunis, Acoma, and Pueblos of the Rio Grand Valley and the Mojave’s, Maricopa’s, Yanas, and Papajos of Arizona. Later on in the same year, Curtis visits the Sioux and Cheyenne of the Rocky Mountain region.

1903-Curtis sends a photograph of Marie Octavia Fischer to The Ladies Home Journal in response to a solicitation for images of "The Prettiest Children in America." After his photograph is selected as one of twelve best, Curtis is invited by Walter Russell, a noted portrait painter, to make portraits of Theodore Roosevelt's sons to serve as models for portraits Russell would paint.

1904-On a trip back East, Curtis obtains the first financing for his Indian project from Doubleday Publishing. Obtaining the financing for this massive project took much of Curtis' future time and finally leads to its downfall during The Depression, especially the commercial subscription portion. Somehow Curtis persisted to finish the technical portion.

1905-Curtis exhibits portions of his work in Washington Club, Cosmos Club, and in many other galleries. The project continues. What made Curtis so unique in this time was his highly skilled art style combined with his concern for ethnographic details. Curtis was present at the dedication of the monument to Chief Joseph.

1906-Curtis exhibits 1,000 photographs in the Seattle area. At President Theodore Roosevelt's inaugural parade, Curtis was asked by Roosevelt to photograph Geronimo and five other Native American chiefs on the lawn of the White House. Roosevelt becomes one of Curtis' most ardent supporters, which lead to a foreword to "The North American, Indian" written by Roosevelt. After an introduction from Roosevelt, J. P. Morgan offers Curtis $75,000 for series on the North American Indian with 20 volumes and 1500 photographs. Morgan was to receive 25 sets and 500 original prints. Curtis wrote a series of articles for Scribners magazine, beginning in 1906.

1907-The first volume of The North American Indian is completed. The New York Herald hailed The North American Indian as "the most gigantic undertaking in the making of books since the King James edition of the Bible." The entire 20 volume set and accompanying portfolios, consisting of 2,232 portfolio and bound volume gravures and text cost $1,500,000 to produce (272 total editions). At least half of the funding came from J.P. Morgan and his son, Jack, by way of grants. The project continues. Curtis photographs the area around The Little Bighorn, thirty one years after the battle. Curtis rides with and photographs Crow scouts from the US Cavalry who had survived the battle, as well as the Cheyenne and Sioux who had been their enemies.

1908-1918-The Project Continues. Curtis asked the Indians to re-enact famous battles or conduct ceremonies for his camera. He then de-emphasized any assimilation that had taken place with the culture of the white man, sometimes by removal of contemporary dress and objects. Curtis lived among the Indian peoples and studied their ways in depth and by doing so gained their friendship and trust. During this period Curtis filmed "In the Land of the Headhunters," re-creating Indian Life on the North Coast.

1919-Curtis' wife, Clara files for divorce and receives as part of the settlement, the studio, all of his negatives. The original filing was years earlier, but Curtis was always in the field and could not be made to come to court. She continues to manage the studio with her sister. Curtis destroys all of his glass negatives at this time.

1920-Curtis moves from Seattle to Los Angeles with his daughter Beth. He begins his involvement with the film industry by assisting Cecil B. Demille ("The Ten Commandments").

1921-1929-The Project Continues. Curtis' Indian subjects, willingly participated in the picture making as if they too wanted to recapture their daily past and spiritual life. Throughout his

career, Curtis would fight to be accepted by scholars of North American Indians, especially the approval of The Smithsonian Institute.

1930-Volumes 19 and 20 of "The North American Indian" are published. The project is finally completed. The photogravures were by John Andrew and Son and The Suffolk Engraving Company. The Publishers were The University Press-Cambridge and The Plimpton Press-Norwood. Shortly thereafter, The North American Indian Company goes bankrupt, failing to sell enough subscriptions to pay for the printing cost. The photogravure printing plates and all other artifacts become the property of Curtis' creditors, the printing companies and publishers he used.

1936-Curtis went to South Dakota to film "The Plainsman." He sold it for $1,500, as he needed the money. During the last part of his life, the interest that occupied Curtis the most was gold mining. In the 40's research for a book tentatively titled The Lure of Gold became his passion. Because the project conceived was too massive (like "The North American Indian"), it was never completed.

1952-Curtis dies of a heart attack in Los Angeles. Most of his life in the forties and prior to his death was involved in studio photography and working in the film industry. The New York Times gave him a 76 word obituary in which he was listed as an authority on the history of The North American Indian. It was also noted that he was known as a photographer.

1977-The original copper photogravure plates for The North American Indian were rediscovered at Lauriat Bookshop. They were purchased by The Curtis Collection in 1982. Florence Gray bill Curtis, one of his daughters, publishes a distinguished history of her father, which is still in print.

FINAL-W.H. Holmes, Chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology stated, in speaking of the value of The North American Indian for posterity, "The ordinary book of today will last but a few generations. This publication should last for a thousand years, and it would not be the part of wisdom to undertake the expenditure required for its issue without having a series of types satisfactory artistically and covering the ground ethnologically.... The project is a splendid one, and has an importance that can be realized only by those having a true conception of the work proposed; take the trouble to assume the point of view of the student of human history a thousand years in the future.