About Edward Curtis

Born in 1868, eight years before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Edward Sheriff Curtis was the greatest photographer of Native America and the West during the late 19 th and early 20th centuries. He was a pioneer in the fields of anthropology, ethnography and photography. His work is landmark, as he was the first to use the camera not only to chronicle culture and history, but also to do so with painterly artistic beauty. He was the prototypical, quintessential, National Geographic type of photographer before the magazine existed. His work shaped the way Native Americans were and are perceived. Many people of Curtis’s day viewed the Indians as pagan savages. But through the eyes and lens of Edward Curtis, people were helped to see Native Americans as they really are; human beings of a great culture with rich traditions and spirituality, deserving of being treated with dignity and respect. Inspired by his vision and connection with the Indians, his images have a wonderful painterly quality with their impeccable composition and magical sense of light and depth. They continue to influence and inspire us today.

Son of a farmer, turned minister due to his father being disabled in the Civil War, young Edward grew up in the Midwest in poverty with only with a 6 th grade education, and a tremendous work ethic. After his family moved to the northwest where he later became more familiar with the Indians and their plight, he was compelled by his unique and great idea: to capture in books and on film America’s first people before their old ways were gone forever. In “Indiana Jones” like fashion, he became a great American adventurer who
successfully combined history, anthropology and fine art.

He had the formidable backing of Theodore Roosevelt and was financed by J.P. Morgan, the wealthiest man in America. He took more than 40,000 photographs, and made over 10,000 audio recordings in the process of creating the most comprehensive and definitive record of Native America. 2,220 of his best photographs found their way into his 20-volume master work, The North American Indian.

In 1928 when he produced the last of his 20 volumes, the nation was on the verge of the great depression. Curtis went into the 1930’s underappreciated and poor. But today, rare Curtis photogravures and gold tones bring high prices at galleries and auctions. He has become recognized as a visionary, possessing extraordinary artistic and scholarly talent, who left for all of us, one of America’s greatest cultural treasures, a priceless legacy.

– Paul Unks, August, 2016

Photographer, Historian, Author, and Ethnographer

With accounts of both the oral and visual history, Curtis was not only a photographer, but also a historian, and ethnographer.  The ethnographer goes beyond reporting events and details of the experience.  Specifically, he attempts to explain how these represent what we might call “webs of meaning” categorized by the cultural constructions in which we live. To develop an understanding of what it is like to live in a culture, the researcher must both become a participant in the life of the setting while also maintaining the stance of an observer, someone who can describe the experience with a measure of what we might call “detachment.” Source: Brian A. Hoey

Thanks to Curtis’ scientifically sound field research techniques, we have a valid anthropological record of the western tribal nations at the height of their 19th-century culture. Curtis wrote 20 books and made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings in addition to the incredible photographs he took. Through his eyes and lens,people back east, who previously viewed the Indiansas stereotypical pagan savages,now the first time, saw them as a formidable spiritual people with a rich culture, deserving of respect, not genocide. Today, Edward Curtis is recognized as a pioneer in visual anthropology and as a sensitive artist of photography whose poignant images of American Indians are among the most remarkable and recognizable ever made.

Importance of Curtis Artistry/Works

Old Well of Acoma gold tone image, sm

Curtis is a landmark photographer for two reasons, the first being credited to his historical and cultural value.  Many of the artifacts of these people and times had already begun to disappear by the end of the 19th century.  Curtis was also one of the first people to use the camera to develop mindful art.  He composed the shots and vision into a collection of art, experience, and beauty that still influences photographers of today.

Within Curtis’ photography,  one can grasp the beauty and spirit of Native character  and also their broken hearts, in the loss of their people, culture, and the land they had lived upon for thousands of years. Curtis was a master of the portrait, fueled by his previous experience as a photographer in Seattle. His use of space and rich tones dramatically recreated a sense of light and depth that had never been captured by photographers previously.  He was a master artist in total command of composition and light.

Why Curtis Prints Are Unique

These works serve as such masterful  artistic pieces because of their ability to fit in with any decor.  They do not fight for color which makes them completely neutral to their environment, and also allows complete choice over framing, enabling people to appreciate and display diverse pieces of art in a variety of home and work spaces. Curtis was far ahead of his time which transformed his work from landmark to iconic.  The message he delivers through his lens is powerful, a testament to Curtis’ ability to capture the timeless through his delicate and cultivated appreciation of the temporal.