When I think of the Plains Indian Photographs of Edward Curtis, the first images that typically come to mind are of his striking Native American portraiture. But, his images contain so much more than just faces. I find the scenery of the American West that he captures in conjunction with the Natives helps deepen the story found in each unique photogravure. From sprawling plains and roaring rivers to massive canyons and dramatic mountains, Curtis traveled through and photographed many of America’s beautifully diverse landscapes. Because of his skill not only as an ethnographer but as a truly talented artist, we are able to see through his work glances of a landscape that has never been captured in the same way.
An expert outdoors-man and mountaineer, Edward S Curtis followed his adventurous spirit long before his mission to photograph the Native Americans. Growing up, he traveled by canoe through the waterways of Minnesota spreading religion with his father, a minister. Although Curtis never fell in love with the church, he developed a great passion for the outdoors. In fact, while hiking Mount Rainer he met George Bird Grinnell, who played a role in Curtis’s inspiration to embark on his quest to document the Native American tribes, which were quickly disappearing. It was a quest that would take Curtis the rest of his life, costing him his fortune, his family, and his reputation. Curtis would die penniless and divorced, and although his life’s achievement is heralded as priceless ethnography of the American Indian tribes, he would not in his lifetime realize his current level of fame.
Curtis’s career began in Seattle. He built a widely respected portraiture studio and, when he was not paying the bills by photographing Seattle’s social elite, he trained his lens on the waterways near his home. It was here he met and photographed his first Native American, Princess Angeline, the daughter of Chief Seattle. He also captured images of the inlet at Puget Sound, its calm water beneath grandiose skies. Although the people in the images are performing everyday tasks, their natural surroundings create a striking piece of artwork. It was this style of photography that most inspired Curtis, and he set off across the west to take portraits of the Native Americans and photograph their lifestyle against the remarkable backdrop of the western landscape.
One of his most famous examples of landscape is “Canyon de Chelly,” which depicts seven riders on horseback surrounded by dramatic cliff formations. Located in the Northwest corner of Arizona, Canyon de Chelly is considered a very sacred place for the Navaho even to this day. Though many modern photographers have tried to capture it, Curtis’s image remains one of the most powerful photographs ever taken of the Canyon. Of course, “he believed that no two people could point a camera at something and come away with the same image,” and this photograph is a clear example of that belief. This particular picture seems to make the humans seem insignificant alongside this epic landscape, playing into Curtis’s theme of “the dying race.”
Another photograph that dramatizes the landscape of the west is “In the Badlands.” This image is another great example of mountains overshadowing humans and illustrates our insignificance in relation to nature.
Edward S. Curtis’s striking images of the west are unmatched, even today. It is not possible to ever again capture the people, landscape, and lifestyle of the west in the way Edwards S. Curtis did. We are honored here at Valley Fine Art to have such a vast collection of Plains Indian Photographs of Edward Curtis.