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Edward Sheriff Curtis

Edward Sheriff Curtis

Edward Sheriff Curtis. Photo courtesy of The Seattle Star, November 2, 1910, p. 4 (public domain)

From the Midwest to the Northwest

In 1868, Edward Sheriff Curtis was born on a farm near Whitewater, Wisconsin. After working at a photography studio in St. Paul, Minnesota, Curtis moved to Seattle, Washington, where he soon married Clara Phillips. With a newly purchased camera, Curtis bought into a local studio. Edward and Clara had the first of four children in 1893 and lived above the thriving studio.

Native American Photography

Generally, Curtis photographed upper-class women in a flattering style. However, in 1895, Curtis took pictures of Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth of the Duwamish tribe. Three years later at Mount Rainer, Curtis met anthropologist George Bird Grinnell, who hired Curtis to photograph the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899. On this trip, Curtis was introduced to both powerful scenery and Eskimos. Grinnell then invited Curtis to Montana to photograph the Piegan tribe.

Documenting Native Peoples, Lands, and Customs

This inspired Curtis to make documenting Native Americans and their customs his singular goal. Curtis first exhibited his photography in Seattle and then lectured nationally. President Theodore Roosevelt admired Curtis’ work and J.P. Morgan became Curtis’ primary patron in 1906. For 25 sets of 500-print volumes, Morgan paid Curtis $75,000 over five years. Curtis took an extensive wagon tour of the American West with researchers and interpreters. En route, he photographed leaders like Geronimo, Medicine Crow, and Chief Joseph. Curtis and his team also made wax recordings of native speech and songs. Most tribes trusted Curtis and he was named “Shadow Catcher” for his high-contrast, golden-hued orotones.

Completing The North American Indian

Upon Morgan’s death in 1913, Curtis’ funding dwindled, affecting his photography and family. Clara filed for divorce in 1916 and won the Curtis Studio and home in the settlement. Curtis worked briefly in Hollywood, directing a film on Native Americans and serving as a cameraman for The Ten Commandments. In the 1920s, Curtis revisited various tribes and observed their dramatic cultural erosion. By 1930, Curtis issued the final volume of The North American Indian, his epic collection of over 40,000 photographs. Yet the original sets only garnered $1,000 plus partial royalties.

An Imperfect Yet Profound Legacy

In 1952, Curtis died of a heart attack in Los Angeles at 84. His vast trove of photos now offers a window into a largely lost world. While some have criticized Curtis for staging certain scenes, the historical importance of his work is clear and, for his time, he was quite sensitive to and engaged with the plight of Native Americans.

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Edward Sheriff Curtis
Edward Sheriff Curtis
Edward Sheriff Curtis
Edward Sheriff Curtis