Edward Sheriff Curtis (February 16, 1868 – October 19, 1952) was an American ethnologist and photographer of theAmerican West and of Native American peoples.
Edward Curtis was born on February 16, 1868 on a farm near Whitewater, Wisconsin. His father, the Reverend Asahel “Johnson” Curtis (1840–87), was a minister, farmer, and American Civil War veteran born in Ohio. His mother, Ellen Sheriff (1844–1912), was born in Pennsylvania. Curtis’s siblings were Raphael (1862–c.1885), also called Ray; Edward, called Eddy; Eva (1870–?); and Asahel Curtis (1874–1941). Weakened by his experiences in the Civil War, Johnson Curtis had difficulty in managing his farm, resulting in hardship and poverty for his family.
Around 1874, the family moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota to join Johnson Curtis’s father, Asahel Curtis, who ran a grocery store and was a postmaster in Le Sueur County. Curtis left school in the sixth grade and soon built his own camera.
Princess Angeline(Duwamish) in an 1896photogravure by Edward Sheriff Curtis
In 1885 at the age of 17, Edward became an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1887 the family moved to Seattle, Washington, where Edward purchased a new camera and became a partner in an existing photographic studio with Rasmus Rothi. Edward paid $150 for his 50% share in the studio. After about six months, Curtis left Rothi and formed a new partnership with Thomas Guptill. The new studio was called Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photoengravers.
In 1895, Curtis met and photographed Princess Angeline (c. 1820–1896), aka Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. This was to be his first portrait of a Native American. In 1898, three of Curtis’ images were chosen for an exhibition sponsored by the National Photographic Society. Two were images of Princess Angeline, “The Mussel Gatherer”, and “The Clam Digger”. The other was of the Puget Sound, titled “Homeward”. The latter was awarded the exhibition’s grand prize and a gold medal. In that same year, while photographing Mt. Rainier, Curtis came upon a small group of scientists. One of them was George Bird Grinnell, an expert on Native Americans. Curtis was appointed Official Photographer to the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899, probably as a result of his friendship with George Bird Grinnell. Having very little formal education Curtis learned much during the lectures that were given aboard the ship each evening of the voyage. Grinnell became interested in Curtis’ photography and invited him to join an expedition to photograph people of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Montana in the year 1900.
The North American Indian
In 1906, J. P. Morgan provided Curtis with $75,000 to produce a series on Native Americans. This work was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Morgan’s funds were to be disbursed over five years and were earmarked to support only fieldwork for the books not for writing, editing, or production of the volumes. Curtis himself would receive no salary for the project, which was to last more than 20 years. Under the terms of the arrangement, Morgan was to receive 25 sets and 500 original prints as his method of repayment.
Once Curtis had secured funding for the project, he was able to hire several employees to help him. For writing as well as with recording Native American languages, Curtis hired a former journalist, William E. Myers. For general assistance with logistics and fieldwork, Curtis hired Bill Phillips, a graduate of the University of Washington. Perhaps the most important hire for the success of the project was Frederick Webb Hodge, an anthropologist employed by the Smithsonian who had also researched Native American peoples of the southwestern United States. Hodge was hired to edit the entire series.
222 complete sets were eventually published. Curtis’ goal was not just to photograph, but to document, as much of Native American traditional life as possible before that way of life disappeared. 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.” Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American language and music. He took over 40,000 photographic images from 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, and his material, in most cases, is the only written recorded history although there is still a rich oral tradition that documents history. This work was exhibited at the Rencontres d’Arles festival (France) in 1973.
In the Land of the Head Hunters
Curtis had been using motion picture cameras in the fieldwork for The North American Indian since 1906. He worked extensively with ethnographer and British Columbia native George Hunt in 1910, which inspired his work with the Kwakiutl, but much of their collaboration remains unpublished. At the end of 1912, Curtis decided to create a feature film depicting Native American life, partly as a way of improving his financial situation and partly because film technology had improved to the point where it was conceivable to create and screen films more than a few minutes long. Curtis chose the Kwakiutl tribe of the Queen Charlotte Strait region of the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada, for his subject. This film, entitled In the Land of the Head Hunters, was the first feature-length film whose cast was composed entirely of Native North Americans
In the Land of the Head-Hunters premiered simultaneously at the Casino Theatre in New York and the Moore Theatre in Seattle on December 7, 1914. The silent film was accompanied by a score composed by John J. Braham, a musical theater composer who had also worked with Gilbert and Sullivan. The film was praised by critics but made only $3,269.18 in its initial run.
Indian Days of the Long Ago, 1915
Photographer Ella E. McBride assisted Curtis in his studio beginning in 1907, and became a friend of the family. McBride made an unsuccessful attempt to purchase the studio with Curtis’ daughter Beth in 1916, the year of Curtis’ divorce, and left to open her own studio.
Around 1922, Curtis moved to Los Angeles with his daughter Beth, and opened a new photo studio. To earn money he worked as an assistant cameraman for Cecil B. DeMille and was an uncredited assistant cameraman in the 1923 filming of The Ten Commandments. On October 16, 1924 Curtis sold the rights to his ethnographic motion picture In the Land of the Head-Hunters to the American Museum of Natural History. He was paid $1,500 for the master print and the original camera negative. It had cost him over $20,000 to film.
In 1927, after returning from Alaska to Seattle with his daughter Beth, he was arrested for failure to pay alimony over the preceding 7 years. The total owed was $4,500, but the charges were dropped. For Christmas of 1927, the family was reunited at daughter Florence’s home in Medford, Oregon. This was the first time since the divorce that Curtis was with all of his children at the same time, and it had been thirteen years since he had seen Katherine. In 1928, desperate for cash, Edward sold the rights to his project to J.P Morgan’s son. In 1930 he published the opus-concluding volume of The North American Indian. In total, about 280 sets were sold of his now completed magnum opus. In 1930, his ex-wife, Clara, was still living in Seattle operating the photo studio with their daughter Katherine. His other daughter, Florence Curtis, was still living in Medford, Oregon with her husband Henry Graybill. After Clara died of heart failure in 1932, his daughter Katherine moved to California to be closer to her father and her sister Beth.
Loss of rights to The North American Indian
In 1935, the Morgan estate sold the rights and remaining unpublished material to the Charles E. Lauriat Company in Boston for $1,000 plus a percentage of any future royalties. This included 19 complete bound sets of The North American Indian, thousands of individual paper prints, the copper printing plates, the unbound printed pages, and the original glass-plate negatives. Lauriat bound the remaining loose printed pages and sold them with the completed sets. The remaining material remained untouched in the Lauriat basement in Boston until they were rediscovered in 1972.