Photo: Edward S. Curtis, Kutenai Duck Hunter, 1910, photogravure.
“I am beginning to believe that that nothing is quite so uncertain as facts,” revealed American ethnographer and photographer Edward S. Curtis, a revealing observation for a man who dedicated his life to the preservation of a vanishing race. Born in 1868, near Whitewater, Wisconsin, Curtis left school in the sixth grade. Soon after that, he built his own camera, fostering a trade that would grow to be a calling by his life’s end. Beginning in 1906, Curtis set forth on a quest to create a comprehensive record of Native Americans, declaring, “ I want to make them live forever. It’s such a big dream I can’t see it all.”
None less than J. P. Morgan himself financed the project with $75,000. Morgan’s terms were precise: the work was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. The funds were disbursed over five years and were to cover only the fieldwork (and not the writing, editing, or production of the volumes). Curtis received no salary for the project, which was to last over three decades. In total, Curtis took over 40,000 photographic images from over 80 tribes west of the Mississippi River, from the Mexican border to northern Alaska. He also recorded tribal lore, history, traditions, ceremonies, and customs, as well as biographies of tribal leaders.
The result was The North American Indian, a twenty-volume, twenty-portfolio set. Each portfolio contained 75 hand-pressed photogravures and 300 pages of text, which was accompanied by a corresponding portfolio containing at least 35 photogravures. In total, 222 complete sets were published, each containing over 2,200 photographs. His output was unmatched, and it was driven by the knowledge that time was of the essence. In the introduction to the first volume, published in 1907, he wrote, “The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other… Consequently, the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once, or the opportunity will be lost for all time.”
The North American Indian, which stands as a landmark in the history of photography, book publishing, ethnography, and the history of the American West, has inspired a new look at its contents. A new exhibition of photographs, Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks, is on view at the Palm Springs Art Museum, now through May 29, 2016. Accompanying the exhibition is a catalog of the same name, published by Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography in association with Delmonico Books/Prestel.
One Hundred Masterworks presents an extraordinary selection of vintage photographs in a variety of classic mediums, including photogravure, platinum, goldtone (orotone), toned and untoned gelatin silver, cyanotype, and gold-toned printing-out paper prints. The different printing techniques add another layer of history to the work, offering a space where art and artifact mingle and merge. During his time with the Crow, they honored Curtis with the name Auk-ba-axua Balat Duchay (meaning “One Body Image Taker”), recognizing the way in which his calling drove him to use the camera as a bridge between two different worlds occupying the same lands.
All photos: Courtesy of the Christopher G. Cardozo Collection.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.