Sunday, April 12, 2020

Edward Curtis and The North American Project by Bea Tifton

 Self Portrait 1889

Edward Curtis is regarded as one of the leading photographers of Native Americans. He spent most of his professional life pursuing this project, ruined his health doing so, and died penniless. But his works are now highly regarded as one of the best ways to see the Native American culture through photography. 
Curtis was born in 1868 in Whitewater, Wisconsin. When he was 17 he began as a photography apprentice. In 1887, his family moved to Port Orchard, Washington, which sparked an interest in the Native Americans who lived along the Seattle waterfront.  Curtis married Clara Phillips on 1888 and invested in a local photography studio. In 1893, Harold, the first of four children, was born. The family lived above the Curtis Studio, which had a thriving business.  
 In 1895 or 1896 Curtis produced his first photo of a Native American, Princess Angeline of the Duwamish tribe. She was the oldest daughter
Princess Angeline
 of Chief Seattle.
 In 1898, Curtis met a group of respected scientists who had become lost in the Mt. Rainier area. Anthropologist George Bird Grinnell, who was an expert on Native American culture, became a good friend.  This friendship led to Curtis being appointed as the photographer of the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899 for two months. Grinnell then asked Curtis to join a trip to the Piegan Blackfeet in Montana in 1900. 
Curtis wrote that, “It was at the start of my concerted effort to learn about the Plains Indians to photograph their lives and I was deeply affected.” (Smithsonian) 
Curtis obtained the financial backing of J.P. Morgan and began The Native American Project, a plan to compile his photographs into a book. Curtis worked on photographing Native Americans for the next 30 years. He lectured a great deal around the country and had photographic exhibitions of his work. After its completion, The North American Indian consisted of 20 volumes, “each with 75 hand pressed photogravures and 300 pages of script. Each volume had a corresponding portfolio with 36 photogravures.” (Totally History)  With WWI and the Great Depression, combined with a waning interest in Native American culture, fewer than 300 sets were sold. 
North American Indian 

Curtis kept such a rigorous work schedule that he had a physical and nervous breakdown in 1930. He took two years to recover, then moved to live with his daughter in Los Angeles for the next 20 years until he died in 1952 at 84 of a heart attack. By that time he was unknown and penniless.  

Curtis is now well regarded for his methods of photographing Native Americans and the photographs he produced. Curtis would take time to interview his subjects before he photographed them. He made portraits of people in their native clothing, but also photographed elements of their culture. His photographs are a tribute to a vanishing culture that can be appreciated even today.

Apache Warrior

Sioux Maiden



  1. I remember seeing an exhibit of his work at the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art in Fort Worth several years ago. His photographs are mesmerizing. I'm so sorry to learn he died penniless after his great contribution to history. Great post.

  2. He was a much better photographer than he was a businessman. It is a real shame. Thank you for commenting.


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