In 1890, the battle of wounded Knee took place marking the beginning of the decline of Indian culture - Edward S. Curtis was 21 years old. Around the same time, Curtis lost his father and he decided to move to Seattle to work in a photographic business; it would be a business that he would eventually take over. Although Curtis is best known for his images of The Native American Indian, he was held in high regard as a landscape and portrait photographer. Later in his career he was summoned to the White House to photograph the President's son.
Up until 1900 Edward S.Curtis worked primarily as a commercial photographer photographing landscapes, people and accompanying the Harriman expedition to Alaska where he served as the official photographer. It was during this expedition that Curtis became interested in the different ethnology's of the northwest coast and the Indians in particular. Curtis decided to photograph every tribe in the United States - a massive undertaking for any photographer. Eighty tribes of North American Indian were photographed over a thirty year period in a project which Curtis regarded himself as an artist and a scientist. The images cover a broad range of subject matter from portraits to landscapes; the photographer recognising that the land played a vitally important spiritual role in an Indians life. The portraits are just beautiful pieces of work and the faces of the sitters are amazing to look at. Many show a sad resignation, as though they know that Curtis is photographing the end of their way of life. The Navaho girl image is especially haunting - she is a beautiful girl and yet she had such sad looking eyes.
Over 40,000 negatives were taken but Curtis didn't stop with the still-image. Stories, legends and myths as well as tribal histories were all written down and recorded using the early Edison wax cylinder sound recording system. The Indian tribes had no written language and relied on the spoken word to pass on tribal histories. More than 10,000 songs alone were recorded and documented.
The project was finally finished in 1930 when the final volume of Indian tribe images were published as part of a limited print run of only 25 sets of 30 volumes. Some 300 original prints were also made. The end of the mammoth project led to Curtis suffering severe emotional and physical exhaustion from which he never fully recovered. In 1952 Edward S. Curtis died at the age of 84. Such was the lack of interest in his work at that time, that The New York Times obituary for him came to just 76 words - a sad reflection of how Curtis and photographic history was viewed during the 1950's.
The images were rediscovered during the 1970's and the work of Edward S. Curtis has amazed and delighted photographers from all over the world ever since. Curtis recognised that the native American Indian traditions and culture, he was viewing, was facing annihilation due to the increasing demands of the modern world. Curtis knew he had to document it before it was all over - even it it took a lifetime to do so. To his credit he produced a thorough piece of work that continues to influence photographers to this day. His work offers a fascinating insight into the traditions and life of the Native American Indian.
This post forms a series of three looking at photographers who photographed unique cultures -many facing extinction. The next photographer in the 'photographer profile' series of posts also recorded a unique culture faced with annihilation. He's a great photographer I've only just come across recently. Roman Vishniac photographed the Jewish culture in central and Eastern Europe in the late 1930's before the holocaust. The profile on Roman Vishniac will be posted in November.
Edward S. Curtis Links
All images by Edward S. Curtis
Top image - Edward S. Curtis
Image 2 - Chief Joseph, or Hin-Mah-Too-Yah ("Thunder Traveling to Loftier Mountain Heights"), was a hereditary chief of the Nez Percé. In 1877, Chief Joseph surrendered with these now-famous words: "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever." Photo taken in 1903 by Edward S. Curtis
Image 3 - The storm -Apache. In the high mountain of apache land just before a storm breaks.
Image 4 - A young Navaho girl