By Bill Dobbins
Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) was a pioneer American photographer and ethnologist who specialized in Native American peoples and shot some of the most iconic photos of the American West ever created. Looking at some of his photographs makes you wish the producers and art directors of western movies featuring American Indians had paid a lot more attention to what these people actually looked like.
His photos also call into question many of the stereotypes and assumptions we make about the people already inhabiting the “new world” when Columbus and others first sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in vast numbers. The reality is much more impressive than most of what later appeared on movie and TV screens.
What Columbus and subsequent waves of invaders encountered were a series of ancient and complex cultures. Of course, we must also realize that, in strict terms, there are no “native” American. Modern humans originally evolved in Africa and are immigrants to every other continent. But since American Indians came to the Americas some 10,000 years or more before 1492 these people can certainly claim right of possession of these two continents – possession being nine-tenths of the law.
Edward Curtis was not born and raised in the Southwest but was originally from St. Paul, Minnesota, where he apprenticed as a photographer at age 17. Later he moved with his family to Seattle, Washington. A chance meeting resulted in his being appointed the official photographer of the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899. Subsequently, he got the opportunity to join an expedition to photograph people of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Montana in 1900
His experiences in these projects created what was to become a lifetime interest in photographing groups like Native Americans, Inuits and other First Inhabitant peoples.
By the time Curtis began photographing native peoples the Indian Wars were already in the past. Custer was killed and the last serious Sioux war that took place in 1876-77. The Wounded Knee Massacre, in which the US army killed some 300 (mostly) Lakota women, children and old men occurred in 1890. But due to the deliberate and continuous destruction of the buffalo herds in the last part of the century the ability of the plains Indians to continue to survive as they had in the past was doomed, intervention by the army or not.
Much of what he photographed was “authentic” in that these were real Native American engaged in traditional practices – but is stands to reason that some was “staged” by individuals who no longer were able to continue to live as their ancestors had for thousands of years. But the photos Curtis created are as close to real life documentary images as we can expect ever to see.
In documenting Native Americans, Curtis employed writers and has cylinder recordings made of their speech and music. He eventually published 222 complete sets of his photos, hoping to preserve what these peoples were like before their way of life disappeared completely.
He wrote in the introduction to his first volume in 1907, “The information that is to be gathered … respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.”
According to Wikipedia:
Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American language and music. He took over 40,000 photographic images of members of over 80 tribes. He recorded tribal lore and history, and he described traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs. He wrote biographical sketches of tribal leaders. His material, in most cases, is the only written recorded history, although there is still a rich oral tradition that preserves history] His work was exhibited at the Rencontres d’Arles festival in France in 1973.
Curtis also recorded the Native Americans using motion picture cameras and eventually created a silent feature film called In the Land of the Head Hunters. He also spent time photographing and documenting Inuit peoples in Alaska as well as a variety of other Native American tribes.
As with other pioneer photographers, Edward S.Curtis eventually failed to capitalize financially on his incredible body of work. He sold rights to his photographs and films for relatively small amounts of money and never saw much long-term profit from his magnificent achievements.
Curtis died in 1952 largely unappreciated for his great historical photos. But he experienced a revival in the 1970s and original printings of The North American Indian, originally published at the turn of the 20th century, sold for more than $60,000. But financial rewards aside, the work recording and documenting the fading reality of Indian life at the turn of the 20th century has left history with invaluable resources when it come to understanding and appreciating a culture largely destroyed by the European colonization of the Americas.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books: