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Edward S. Curtis papers, 1900-1978 (bulk 1903-1954)

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Curtis (Edward S.) papers

Biographical/Historical Note

The headline for a 1905 article in the Seattle Times hailed Edward Sheriff Curtis as "Artist, Explorer, Clubman, Photographer, Historian and President's Friend." Indeed, by this point in his career, Curtis was all these things and more. Now known primarily for his photographs of indigenous North Americans, Curtis's enduring achievement was a monumental, heroic, and theatrical portrayal of the peoples whom he saw as a "vanishing race." Curtis's depiction of Native Americans was filtered through his interpretation of their pre-contact rather than their current way of life.

Born near Whitewater, Wisconsin in 1868, Curtis grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He built his first camera when he was 12 years old. In 1887, at the age of 19, he and his father traveled to the Washington Territory where, after settling near Port Orchard, they sent for the rest of the Curtis family. Curtis moved to Seattle in 1891 and opened his first photography studio, Rothi and Curtis Photographers, in partnership with Rasmus Rothi. Within a short time he went into partnership with Thomas H. Guptil, forming Curtis and Guptil Photographers and Photo-engravers; Guptil left the firm in 1897. Although Curtis's photographic interests were initially portraiture and landscape photography in the pictorialist tradition, he soon became fascinated with recording Seattle-area Native American groups. Later in his life he claimed that his pictures of Princess Angeline (1895), the aged daughter of Chief Sealth, or Seattle, who eked out a living as a clam digger, were his first photographs of Native Americans.

In 1898, while photographing on Mt. Rainier, Curtis rescued a group of well-known scientists that included zoologist C. Hart Merriam, head of the U.S. Biological Survey and a founding member of the National Geographic Society, and ethnographer and naturalist George Bird Grinnell, editor of Field and Stream and founder of the Audubon Society, who had become lost while climbing the mountain. Impressed with Curtis, Merriam asked him to join the Harriman Alaska Expedition (1899) as its official photographer. Organized by E. H. Harriman, a railway magnate and financier, the expedition's aim was to explore Alaska's coastal waters from its southern panhandle to Prince William Sound. Participation in the expedition introduced Curtis to the fundamentals of ethnographic research. His photographs were included in a two-volume souvenir photograph album produced for expedition members, and reproduced as photogravures in two of the 14 volumes in the Harriman Alaska Series.

The following year Grinnell invited Curtis to photograph the Sun Dance ceremony at the Piegan Reservation in Montana. This experience further solidified Curtis's interest in Native American cultures and fueled his desire to produce a comprehensive visual and written record of the last vestiges of what he saw as the "vanishing race" and its traditional ways. Concentrating on peoples west of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, Curtis spent over a quarter of the twentieth century in the field working on The North American Indian (NAI), his 20-volume publication containing over 1500 small full-page photogravures, along with 700 large-format photogravures in the 20 accompanying portfolios. NAI became one of the largest anthropological projects to be undertaken to date, and is indeed often the only record of the lore and history of some North American groups.

During the first years of the twentieth century Curtis's photographic work in general, and especially his Native American material, became increasingly well-known throughout the United States. When not in the field he worked unceasingly to raise funds for NAI by giving lantern slide lecture tours, mounting exhibitions, and publishing articles. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt asked Curtis to photograph his family. Roosevelt was very interested in the NAI project and wrote a glowing letter of recommendation that Curtis used in subsequent publicity for the project. Finally, in 1906, J. P. Morgan agreed to back the NAI project for the next five years, and in 1907 the first volume was published with a foreword by Roosevelt.

Despite incessant work by the large team Curtis assembled for the project, which included William E. Myers as researcher and writer; Frederick Webb Hodge as editor; and a phalanx of ethnological and photographic assistants, interpreters, and native guides, only eight volumes of NAI were completed in the first five years. After Morgan's death in 1913 his son, J. P. Jr., agreed to continue sponsoring the project, the final volume of which was published in 1930. To augment Morgan's funding and the sale of subscriptions Curtis continued to raise capital through increasingly complex off-season projects. In 1911-1912 he mounted the Curtis Picture Musicale (The Story of the Vanishing Race). This elaborate multimedia production began with an orchestral prelude composed by Henry F. Gilbert. Curtis's lecture was accompanied by both hand-colored lantern slides shown through a stereopticon, which made them appear to dissolve in and out of one another, and by film clips, with an orchestral number composed by Gilbert for each segment of the talk. Although it opened at Carnegie Hall to a sold-out audience, the production proved costly, and subsequent performances were not as successful.

Curtis had been using a motion picture camera in the field since 1904, and in 1911 he formed the Continental Film Company to support his idea of producing a commercial, full-length motion picture film, whose ticket sales would help fund the NAI project. In the Land of the Head Hunters was released in 1914. An "epic story of love and war" set in pre-contact times, this silent movie was the first feature film to star Native American, non-professional actors, specifically members of the Kwakwaka'wakw tribes of British Columbia, who were meant to portray their ancestors. Curtis commissioned John J. Braham (Hiawatha and The Corsair) to compose a full score for the film. Shot on location, the film, which included elaborately costumed performances of Kwakwaka'wakw dances, was made all the more dramatic through the use of dynamic camera work, the vivid toning and tinting of the footage, and Braham's theatrical score. Despite its initial critical acclaim, it too was a financial disaster. Although In the Land of the Head Hunters does accurately document some aspects of Kwakwaka'wakw culture, Curtis's intention was to produce what would now be termed a mass-market "blockbuster" film. In fact, the film is currently viewed as documenting a cultural encounter between Curtis and the Kwakwaka'wakw who performed his version of their past.

Curtis's constant work in the field and his promotion of NAI on the east coast during the winters kept him away from his family most of the time. His wife Clara divorced him in 1919, and he and his daughter Beth moved to Los Angeles, where they opened a Curtis Studio in the Biltmore Hotel. Clara and their daughter Katherine continued to run the Curtis Studio in Seattle until 1930. In Los Angeles Curtis also worked as a still photographer and cameraman for Cecil B. DeMille and other Hollywood studios to finance his fieldwork. During this time, again to raise funds for fieldwork, he sold the copyright for NAI to the Morgan Company and also sold the copyright for In the Land of the Head Hunters. In the summer of 1927, Curtis and Beth traveled to remote islands in the Bering Sea to complete the fieldwork for the last volume of NAI. This was his last expedition. Returning to Los Angeles, Curtis spent the rest of his life working as a cameraman, mining for gold, and writing his memoirs. The remaining assets of the NAI were sold to the Charles E. Lauriat Company of Boston in 1935. Curtis died in Los Angeles in 1952.

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