Curtis, Edward Sheriff

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Curtis, Edward Sheriff

Edward Sheriff Curtis, 1868–1952, American photographer and pioneer ethnographer known for his documentation of Native Americans, b. near Whitewater, Wis. Curtis was obsessed with photography from childhood, building homemade cameras and studying photographic guides in his teens. His family lived in St. Paul, Minn. (1874–87), where he was a photographer's apprentice, and moved to Seattle (1887), where he became a partner in a photography studio, specializing mainly in portraits. Curtis took his first pictures of Native Americans in the mid-1890s. During the same period he developed printing processes that utilized gold, silver, or platinum and that formed the basis of his luminous goldtone ( "Curt-tone" ), silver-tint, and platinum-tint prints. In 1899 he was appointed as a photographer for Edward H. Harriman's expedition to Alaska, the last of the great 19th-century scientific surveys; during this trip his interest in indigenous peoples increased.

In 1900, Curtis made his first formal photographic trip to Native American lands, visiting the Blackfeet in Montana and initiating the enormous project that would absorb him for the next 30 years. He traveled throughout the W United States, Canada, and Alaska, visiting nearly 100 tribal groups and taking more than 40,000 photographs. Many of the resulting photogravure prints are included in his North American Indian, a prodigious 20-volume set that is at once a work of art, an ethnographic survey, and a monumental photographic essay. Curtis has been criticized for staging some photographs, manipulating some negatives to remove seemingly anachronistic elements, and otherwise falsifying images. Nonetheless, his beautifully executed portraits and scenes of ceremony and daily activities generally successfully portray individual Native Americans and now vanished traditional native ways of life. Curtis's book, printed from 1907 to 1930 in a limited and expensive edition, was encouraged by President Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote its foreward, and at first partially financed by J. P. Morgan. Latter stages of publication were mainly paid for by Curtis himself through lectures, exhibitions, sales, and other means, but despite these efforts the photographer was in chronic debt. Curtis also made some 10,000 recordings of the rituals, music, legends, and everyday speech of various Native American groups, and wrote extensively and produced a film, In the Land of the Headhunters (1914), detailing Kwakiutl culture in the Pacific Northwest.

By the time Curtis died, his work had lapsed into obscurity. He was rediscovered a decade later as public awareness of Native American life and early photography burgeoned. Interest in his work increased with the finding (1976) of a trove of his platinum prints at the Smithsonian Institution and the discovery (1977) of his original photogravure plates, and was bolstered by the concurrent boom in the photography market. Since then, his reputation has soared, and his work has been widely exhibited, studied, and reproduced.

See biographies by B. A. Davis (1985), L. Lawlor (1994), and T. Egan (2012); studies by C. Cardozo and A. White, ed. (1993), M. Gridley (1998), H. C. Adam, ed. (1999), and C. Cardozo et al., ed. (2000); A. Makepeace, Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians (documentary and book, 2001).

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