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Edward S. Curtis Biography
EDWARD SHERIFF CURTIS BIOGRAPHY
“It’s such a big dream, I can’t see it all.”
In the summer of 1900, among the Piegan on the Montana plains, Edward Curtis witnessed what some believed would be the final Sun Dance ceremony. Curtis was profoundly moved by the experience, and it inspired the vision for his life’s work—a massive photo-ethnographic undertaking to present a “broad and luminous picture” of Native American life.
Edward Sheriff Curtis was born in 1868 in rural Wisconsin. His family moved to Minnesota, and, in 1885, at age seventeen, Curtis became an apprentice photographer at a studio in St. Paul. Two years later the Curtis family moved to Seattle. Curtis purchased a new camera and began his professional career as a studio portraitist.
In 1895, Curtis met and photographed Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. In 1898, three of Curtis’s Native American images were chosen for an exhibition sponsored by the National Photographic Society. Homeward, an image of Puget Sound, was awarded the exhibition’s grand prize and a gold medal (the image is still regarded as one of Curtis’ most important and exceptional negatives).
Curtis established himself as Seattle’s preeminent studio photographer, eventually earning an invitation to photograph President Theodore Roosevelt and the First Family at their home in Sagamore Hill. Seeking patronage for his ongoing photography and ethnography of Native Americans (previously self-financed), President Roosevelt supplied Curtis with an introduction to James Pierpont Morgan. Upon seeing Curtis’ photographs, Morgan offered to underwrite Curtis’ work among Native Americans and what would ultimately become a twenty-four-year odyssey culminating in Curtis’ magnum opus, The North American Indian—perhaps the most extraordinary publication ever produced by a single man, a landmark in publishing history, and hailed as the greatest publishing endeavor since the King James Edition of the
The North American Indian is comprised of over four thousand pages of text and more than two thousand images. No photographer has rivaled the breadth and depth of Curtis’ exploration of Native American life, culture, and portraiture. The quality of Curtis’ imagery also remains unrivaled among any other photo-ethnographic undertaking.
Curtis’ photographs are the genesis of unique and early source material for countless images which now broadly populate the visual landscape of Native American art and culture and have intensely, irrefutably influenced the public consciousness, perceptions, identity, and self-identity of Native Americans. Curtis’ work created and stewarded a legacy of the inherent dignity and humanity of Native Americans for themselves and greater society.
“Photograph” means, literally, “map of light.” The images included in The North American Indian span over thirty years and thousands of miles across the North American continent, capturing a vast array of landscapes and lifetimes. Curtis’ singular achievement is truly a map of light of Native American life among the times and places he photographed.
Written by Mia Valley for The Steamboat Art Museum