Photographer Edward S. Curtis Embodied American Heroism at Its Finest

Photo: (l.) Edward Sherriff Curtis. The North American Indian. Portfolio 8, Plate 256. Chief Joseph – Nez Perce, 1909, Photogravure. (r.) Edward Sherriff Curtis. The North American Indian. Portfolio 9, Plate 320. Lummi Type, 1899, Photogravure.

American photographer Edward S. Curtis embodies the essence of heroism in a single word: sacrifice. He staked everything he had to create one of the most significant bodies of work, The North American Indian, ever made and died in obscurity for all that he gave. Now the Muskegon Museum of Art, Michigan, presents Curtis’s full oeuvre—723 portfolio prints—for what may be the first time ever.

Also: Exhibit | Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks

Recognized at the largest artistic collaboration and photographic achievement in the history of the medium, The North American Indian presents a body of work made between 1906 and 1930 documenting the indigenous peoples of the land at a time when they were being systematically wiped off the face of the earth by the United States government.

Edward Sherriff Curtis. The North American Indian. Portfolio 7, Plate 249. Kutenai Duck Hunter, 1910, Photogravure.

The project, financed by J.P. Morgan, then the richest man in the world, was celebrated by The New York Herald as “The most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible.” In total, Curtis produced 20 volumes featuring a whopping 2,200 photogravures, that were sent to subscribers as they were published. Each portfolio contained 75 hand-pressed photogravures and 300 pages of text, which was accompanied by a corresponding portfolio containing at least 35 photogravures.

Edward Sherriff Curtis. The North American Indian. Portfolio 8, Plate 266. Nez Perce Babe, 1900, Photogravure.

Subscriptions were terrifically expensive for the time, costing $3000 for those printed on Dutch Vellum and $3500 for Japanese paper (the equivalent to $80,000 today). Lulu Miller, the Director of Muskegon’s Hackly Public Library at the time, understood the importance of the work, and secured subscription #70 for the library and the community.

Unfortunately, by 1930, less than half of the intended 500 subscriptions were sold. By this time, Curtis had lost it all. He was broke and divorced. The public’s interest in the plight of the First Peoples had disappeared, and his work as a photographer was ignored and eventually forgotten. He died of a heart attack at the age of 84, at his daughter’s home in Los Angeles in 1952.

The son of an impoverished itinerant preacher and farm wife, Curtis was born in 1868 near Whitewater, Wisconsin. At the age of 12, he built his first camera with a lens his father brought back from the Civil War, going on to apprentice in a St. Paul, Minnesota, photography studio. With only a sixth grade education, he worked a great many grueling jobs before hurting his back while logging. He was nursed back to health by neighbor Clara Philips, who he later married.

It was at this time he bought half-interest in a Seattle photo studio, where he went on to win national awards for his studio work. As his profile rose in stature, he began mountaineering expeditions on Mt. Rainier. One day in 1898, he rescued a group of climbers who had gotten lost during a bad storm high on the glacier fields. Among the climbers was George Bird Grinnell, chief of the U.S. Biological Survey and the founder of the Audubon Society; C. Hart Merriam, first chief of the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy of the United States Department of Agriculture, (today’s United States Fish and Wildlife Service); and Gifford Pinchot, the head of Theodore Roosevelt’s new U.S. Forest Department.

Edward Sherriff Curtis. The North American Indian. Portfolio 8, Plate 256. Chief Joseph – Nez Perce, 1909, Photogravure.

His new connections drew Curtis into their circle, where he met the leading American scientists, naturalist, and anthropologists of the time. Grinnell also maintained deep ties to Northwest Montana’s surviving Native American tribes, and in 1900, he invited Curtis to photograph the Piegan’s Sundance Ceremony—an experience that forever changed his life.

Curtis understood that he was standing on the precipice of history, living through a period where the United States government was systematically stripping native peoples of their land, their sovereignty, their culture, their homes—and ultimately, their lives. Impelled by a sense of destiny, Curtis conceived of The North American Indian.

In a 1900 letter to Grinnell, he wrote, “I want to make them live forever. It’s such a big dream, I can’t see it all.” But that didn’t stop him for pursuing it. In 1904, he met President Theodore Roosevelt, who later contributed the Forward to the first volume of The North American Indian.

Curtis approached the project as a ethnographer, creating more than 40,000 photographing images of members of over 80 tribes, along with 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American languages and music. He recorded their tribal lore and histories, their housing, garments, food, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs, along with biographies of tribal leaders.

Edward S. Curtis. The North American Indian, Portfolio 6, Plate 207. Piegan Encampment,, 1900, Photogravure.

By 1928, Curtis was desperate for cash. The $75,000 J.P. Morgan provided back in 1906 simply wasn’t enough to cover the production of the subscriptions and his salary for more than two decades. Curtis sold his rights to J.P. Morgan, Jr. Seven years later the Morgan estate sold the rights to Charles E. Lauriat Company for a measly $1,000 plus a percentage of future royalties. Nineteen complete bound sets of The North American Indians, the original plate-glass negatives, the copper printing plates, individual paper prints, and unbound printed sheets went into a Boston basement for storage where they were forgotten until 1972.

Edward Sherriff Curtis. The North American Indian. Portfolio 9, Plate 320. Lummi Type, 1899, Photogravure.

The following year, The Native American Indian was resurrected and exhibited at Recontres d’Arles, the annual photography festival held in the south of France that honors the rich history of the medium. With the exhibition of the work, interest was renewed, all the more telling in light of the American Indian Movement that was well underway—most powerfully with the Wounded Knee Incident that same year.

The plight of the First Peoples was as poignant as it had been a century earlier, and the passage of time only showed how easy it was for the world to forget, most tellingly Americans themselves.

More than 40 years after these works have returned to the public eye, they have become not only works of great artistic and historical merit, but also something far more powerful. In a culture that embraces disinformation like the idea that any one other than this government was an “Indian giver,” Curtis’s works speak for those who have been silenced, marginalized, and disappeared.

No longer do we misidentify Native Americans as “Indians,” but rather we honor them by their tribal names, and we recognize the many ways that their customs and practices have protected this very Earth. We see the way they have integrated themselves into the very fabric of the nation, from the 26 states whose names come from Native languages, from Alabama to Wyoming, not to mention the hundreds of cities, towns, and counties, from Miami to Manhattan. We recognize that the second Monday of October is Indigenous People’s Day, and shun honoring the man who invented the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. We stand with Standing Rock—the very descendants of the peoples Curtis honored.

“History is written by the victors,” Winston Churchill said, and in the words of Edward S. Curtis we are reminded—the struggle continues…

Edward Sherriff Curtis. The North American Indian. Portfolio 1, Plate 32. A Son of the Desert – Navaho, 1904,. Photogravure.

Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian is on view now through September 10, 2017.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.