In the Land of Edward Sheriff Curtis, Shadowcatcher

Edward Sheriff Curtis in 1889, age 21.
Edward Sheriff Curtis in 1889, age 21

In his rakish self-portrait from 1889, 21-year-old Edward S. Curtis is a young man of almost studied insouciance. He was at the time a new resident of Seattle, where he had partnered with fellow photographer Thomas Guptill in a portrait studio; most of the clients were local businessmen and their families. Several years later, Curtis made his first photograph of a Native American, an elderly woman known as Princess Angeline, a denizen of the Seattle shoreline, most often shown digging for clams and mussels.

Kikisoblu (Princess Angeline of the Duwamish), 1896
Kikisoblu (Princess Angeline of the Duwamish), 1896

A few years later, already alarmed at the living conditions of the region’s local Indians, Curtis accompanied the ethnologist George Bird Grinnell on an expedition to the Blackfeet of Montana. It was there that he resolved to begin documenting the life of this country’s indigenous people: their myths, songs, history, language and, especially, their faces, all of it rapidly disappearing into the dark shadows of time. In 1906, supported by a $75,000 grant from entrepreneur and banker J. P. Morgan, Curtis was able to devote himself full time to the venture, which would consume 30 years of his life. It would eventually also cost him everything that is near and dear to most of us, as well as creative and financial control of his 20-volume work, The North American Indian.

The North American Indian

Curtis planned for the full work to be printed in an edition of 500 copies, but only 227 were finished. Each leather-bound gold-embossed volume is a compendium of a Native American group or region’s cultural history, and includes about seven-dozen photographic plates, often intimate single portraits or photo documents of the artifacts of everyday life. Each volume was supplemented by a portfolio of about three-dozen large photographic plates that represented heroic portraits, larger dramatic groupings, and figures in stunning landscapes. It is these large plates that are most commonly reproduced as representative of Curtis’ work.

Canyon de Chelly
Canyon de Chelly, Navajo

There are dozens of photo books of varying quality that present Curtis’ photographs, and several of them use full-size reproductions. One of the most beautiful is the recently issued Edward S. Curtis:  One Hundred Masterworks, with images made from prints rather than the standard photogravures of the volumes and portfolios.

There are also several rich biographies, such as Anne Makepeace’s Edward S. Curtis: Coming to Light and, especially, Tim Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher.

In a video produced for The Economist, Egan narrates the arc of Curtis’ difficult life and career, detailing several little known incidents that set him on the path to his encyclopedic work and his struggle to maintain its funding after Morgan’s death.

Here is the terse obituary from The New York Times to which Egan refers:

Edward S. Curtis, internationally known authority on the history of the North American Indian, died today at the home of a daughter, Mrs. Bess Magnuson. His age was 84. Mr. Curtis devoted his life to compiling Indian history. His research was done under the patronage of the late financier J. Pierpont Morgan. The forward for the monumental set of Curtis books was written by President Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer.

Saying Curtis was “widely known as a photographer” is rather like saying that J.S. Bach was widely known as an organist.

Though it is the heroic portraits and figures in landscapes that are Curtis’ seminal images, it is the smaller prints contained in the text volumes that give a deeper perspective of the scale of his work. There is another video, assembled by Scott Ewing, that uses mostly these images. Some of these document the majesty of an indigenous people, but the most telling ones reveal the small details of daily existence that connect us even today to their time.

The rise of scholarship in photography that began several decades ago gave academics fresh fodder at a time when much of art and literary criticism was becoming stale. Curtis’ work, especially, seemed to attract scholars who somehow remained immune to the aesthetic beauty of the work but found ample fault with what they saw as artifice and manipulation in his images — not unlike the literalists who found fault with the films of Robert Flaherty. This tribe of nitpickers discovered that Curtis often had his portrait subjects wear beaded skin shirts and other apparel either not of their tribe or duplicated in multiple portraits. In fact, Curtis never denied that he sometimes had to recreate the pre-lapsarian look that he wanted to document. One of his famous groupings is set in a Piegan lodge.

In a Piegan Lodge by Edward S. Curtis, 1910. © Stapleton Collection/Corbis
In a Piegan Lodge, 1910. © Stapleton Collection/Corbis

A variant that includes a woman wearing an elk-tooth shirt features a clock between the two men — just the kind of detail that, once removed, gave furrow-browed academics a basis for faultfinding.

Photo from the Curtis (Edward S.) Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Photo from the Curtis (Edward S.) Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

It is especially the early volumes documenting the Plains tribes that show Curtis staging ceremonial groupings and events that, for many tribes, had already been swept away into the dust of enforced reservation existence. It is in later volumes, such as Portfolio Nineteen, featuring mainly Oklahoma tribes long confined to reservations, where Curtis not only accepts but also realizes the necessity of seeing people as they were at that twilight time of tribal unity. One of the most revealing of these photos shows a Southern Cheyenne gathering, “At the Pool, Animal Dance.” The people are dressed mostly in Western clothes, holding umbrellas against the hot sun.

Northwestern University maintains a website where Curtis’ complete The North American Indian has been published, every text page and photo, as well as every large portfolio image. There are more than 2,000 photos documenting the lives of some 80 tribes.


In December 1914, Curtis premiered in New York City and Seattle a feature-length film he had made among the Kwakiutl people of British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Strait. It documented the same people featured in his Portfolio Ten. Titled In the Land of the Head Hunters, the movie told the story of a vigil-journey of a chief’s son, Motana, and his love for the young native maiden Naida. It is a tale in the mold of Joseph Campbell’s hero/quest narrative, and while it features vivid reenactments of traditional rites and dances, it veers into a quasi-mythic melodrama that may only partly reflect true Kwakiutl history. It is an ambitious venture undertaken by a non-filmmaker in a time of primitive technology, the first-ever feature film using native North Americans as actors. In 1999, the film was added to the National Film Preservation Board’s National Film Registry.

Publicity material for In the Land of the Headhunters
Publicity material for In the Land of the Head Hunters

It is a wonder that In the Land of the Head Hunters exists at all, even in a compromised and incomplete version. The only surviving print was salvaged from a Dumpster in 1947 and given to the Field Museum in Chicago. Several attempts at restoration have been made with varying degrees of success. But the UCLA Film and Television Archive, along with Dennis Doros and Amy Heller of Milestone Films, have made this work as viewable as it is ever likely to be. It is a powerful document, with dramatic cinematography and camera angles and editing that place moments of it alongside Griffith’s action scenes of the same time. Here is the trailer:

Brad Evans, writing of this new restoration, places the film in its time:

Head Hunters' early audiences found an epic adventure story of 'primitive life' — a 'northern' film doing what the ‘westerns’ had long done on the Great Plains. It was promoted as a ‘mighty spectacle drama,’ meant to take its place alongside a revered class of Italian art dramas; one 1914 review called it ‘a companion offering to [Giovanni Pastrone's] Cabiria, as enthralling and as beautiful.’ Although clearly a fictionalized tale, the ethnographic aspects of the film also proved to have lasting influence on documentary cinema. Curtis personally screened Head Hunters for Robert Flaherty between the historic trips to the Arctic that would result in Nanook of the North [1922].

An earlier restoration of In the Land of the Head Hunters is available on YouTube, but this important work is worth seeing in the two-DVD restoration, which includes the earlier restoration (by Northwest Coast art historian Bill Holm, featuring a musical score by indigenous musicians) as well as the Milestone edition (featuring a score by The Turning Point Ensemble and including a documentary by Holm and George Quimby titled The Image Maker and the Indians).


I have often been asked whether my interest in the history of art photography springs from my work as a cinematographer. When I reveal that it was a love of Curtis’ work that led to a broader interest in photography, I usually need to explain further. When I was a working assistant cameraman in the early 1970s, I harbored no special interest in 19th and early 20th century photography; there was little available for exhibition and even less to be collected. The explosion of 1970s art-photography collecting was spurred by curator/collectors like Sam Wagstaff, part of whose voluminous collection is now on display in an exhibition at the Getty Center. (This was the subject of my last post.)

But by 1970, Carol and I had begun collecting Native American art, especially Pueblo pottery, Navajo weavings and some Plains beadwork. Discovering Curtis’ photographs went hand in hand, as they served as both beautiful images and as research tools.

Navajo Sandpainting

The photography dealer G. Ray Hawkins had yet to open his landmark gallery on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, but he was dealing privately in Curtis photogravures, cyanotypes and platinum prints. We acquired a few of them because of our interest in Native American art, and when Hawkins opened his gallery a year later, he exposed us to iconic photographers such as Man Ray, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Paul Outerbridge; local ones like Max Yavno and John Humble; and emerging photographers like Jane O’Neill and Jo An Callis.

Even today, the more immersive my study of Curtis’ work and life becomes, the more I am in awe of him as an artist and a man. Nurturing an obsession that costs one a marriage, a family, and eventually wealth and health is not an enviable career path for anyone, but Curtis had a profound understanding of the singular moment in time when he had one last chance to record in words, music and pictures the disappearing culture of Native Americans, the soul of which he captured in this iconic photograph:

Vanishing Race
Vanishing Race

As the years passed, and to grind out money for his continuing work on The North American Indian, Curtis made routine portraiture. At one point, he even moved to Los Angeles, where he had a gallery in the Biltmore Hotel downtown and did special photography on film sets for directors like Cecil B. DeMille, as well as portraits of movie stars.

Anna May Wong, 1925, by Curtis
Anna May Wong, 1925

His great work was finished in 1930 with the publication of Volume and Portfolio Twenty on the indigenous people of Alaska. Curtis’ place in photography became increasingly marginalized, and when he died in his daughter’s home in October 1952, he had largely been forgotten.

Biographer Laurie Lawlor places Curtis in his rightful place:

The men, women and children in The North American Indian seem as alive to us today as they did when Curtis took their pictures in the early part of the twentieth century. Curtis respected the Native Americans he encountered and was willing to learn about their culture, religion and way of life. In return, the Native Americans respected and trusted him. When judged by the standards of his time, Curtis was far ahead of his contemporaries in sensitivity, tolerance and openness to Native American cultures and ways of thinking.

On a personal note, I give love and tribute to my friend of nearly 50 years, Conrad Angone, a true gentleman/scholar, an amateur, a lover (in the purest French sense of the word) of Native American history, culture and art. Conrad introduced Carol and me to the beauty and glory of Native American art, and he died a few weeks ago.

NEXT: Arthur C. Miller: Early Cinematography Pioneer & ASC President



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