Edward Curtis created an unparalleled photographic record of North America’s native peoples. Even today, a century after his work was first published, the stirring, evocative power of his images remains undimmed.
Born in Whitewater, Wisconsin, in 1868, Curtis first photographed American Indians in the 1880s, in the US northwest. However, it was witnessing one of the last performances of a sun dance ceremony in Montana in 1900 that would most clearly shape his quest to record and photograph the people of a powerful, dignified and, by then, declining culture.
Funded by financier and philanthropist J.P. Morgan, in 1905 Curtis published the first volume of The North American Indian, a series of books featuring anthropological texts, observations and more than 2,000 sepia-tinted photogravures. Curtis spent the next 25 years photographing tribes throughout the Western US and Canada, from the Mexican border to the outposts of Alaska. The tribes apparently came to know him as the ‘Shadow Catcher’.
The subjects are enigmatic: the faces stare out implacable and wise; the landscapes evoke a wild, esoteric America. Often, the images were carefully stage-managed; indeed Curtis’ photographs have been described (even criticised) as idealized, as perpetuating the myth of a ‘vanished race’.
Even while Curtis, who died in 1952, ended his days with little fame and even less money, today an original set of The North American Indian can sell for well in excess of $1 million; and interest in his work, and its remarkable record of American Indian culture, has grown exponentially since its ‘rediscovery’ in the 1970s.