t was 1895 in his Seattle studio where Edward Curtis photographed his first portrait of a Native American. Princess Angeline was his subject, the eldest daughter of Chief Sealth of the Duwamish tribe. He paid her a dollar for each pose. "This seemed to please her greatly," he recollected, "and with hands and jargon she indicated that she preferred to spend her time having pictures made than in digging clams." Little did he know that this was just a glimpse into an encounter that would change the rest of his life.
In 1898, Curtis, while photographing Mt. Rainier, he ran across a group of lost prominent scientists. In the group was George Bird Grinnell, an anthropologist who was an expert on Native cultures. His new found relationship with Grinnell led to an appointment as official photographer for the Harriman Alaska Expedition in 1899. He accompanied over twenty scientists for two months in some of the harshest environments known to man documenting everything from glaciers to Eskimo settlements. The next year, Grinnell took him to visit the Piegan Blackfoot Indians in Montana. He was deeply moved by what he saw as "primitive customs and traditions" of the Piegan culture. He witnessed one of the last performances of the Sun Dance ceremony and was given access to their sacred lives.
From this point on, photographer Edward Curtis was filled with a burning desire to document and preserve what he saw as "a vanishing race." "I want to make them live forever. It's such a big dream I can't see it all." For the next thirty years he endeavored on a project of compiling over twenty volumes. He took over forty thousand original Native American photographs comprising more than eighty tribes. He simply called it "The North American Indian."
Curtis believed the project would only take five to seven years, instead it took nearly a third of his eighty-four year life. By today's standards, he spent nearly thirty-five million dollars. He stirred the interest of many prominent people such as Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan. Morgan initially funded the project. In the foreword of Curtis' first volume of The North American Indian, President Roosevelt wrote, "In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose pictures are pictures, not merely photographs; whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because it is truthful."
Edward Curtis, born in 1868 in rural Wisconsin, was the second of four children. His father, Reverend Johnson Curtis, was a penniless Civil War veteran. Occasionally, the family would sustain themselves for weeks at a time with nothing but potatoes to eat.
Before his fifth birthday, the family moved to rural Cordova, Minnesota, where his father continued as an itinerant preacher. Young Edward had some contact with American Indians while growing up in Minnesota, but most traditional Indian life there had disappeared by the time he and his family arrived in the 1870's, and no specific record exists of any American Indian influence on him in his younger years.
This is most likely where Edward developed his love for nature. He would go with his father on ministry trips to sparsely populated areas. On these excursions Reverend Curtis would teach him canoeing, river navigation, and basic camping skills.
At the age 12 Curtis built his first camera using a lens from a camera his father brought back from the Civil War fifteen years earlier. This was the beginning of his passionate journey in capturing the nature he so loved. At the age of seventeen he served as a photographers apprentice in St. Paul, MN.
In 1887, due to his father's worsening health, the Curtis family moved to the area of Seattle, WA. Where Curtis would eventually purchase a share in a small photography studio and by 1896 was known as Seattle's foremost studio photographer. This gave him the financial freedom to pursue his passion for the great outdoors encountering small pockets of American Indians who still maintained some of the traditional lifestyles.
By the turn of the century, with his Seattle studio business booming, Curtis's photographs of Indians were winning national awards and being exhibited internationally, bringing him a new source of income and recognition.
From 1906 until the completion of "The North American Indian" project Curtis faced every hardship one could conceive, taking profound personal risks. He made tens of thousands of negatives throughout the western United States and Canada, acted as the project's principal ethnographer, fundraiser, publisher, and administrator. He penned most of the initial drafts for the nearly four thousand pages of ethnographic narrative before submitting the text to the project's editor, Frederick Webb Hodge.
Curtis' obsessive pursuit his dream took a heavy toll on his health. He drove himself to the point of exhaustion for many years. After the completion of the project in 1930, he suffered a complete nervous and physical breakdown. The last twenty years of his life were spent in Los Angeles with his daughter Beth. He died in 1952, essentially unknown and penniless.
At the time of Curtis's death, "The North American Indian" project was just about forgotten. When the revival of interest in American Indians and the environment came around in the 1970's Curtis' work resurfaced with a new appreciation. With this came renewed high praise.
Resources: https://edwardcurtis.com/curtis-biography/ (Christopher Cardozo Fine Art), https://www.soulcatcherstudio.com/artists/curtis_cron.html