Born in 1868 near Whitewater, Wisconsin, Edward Sheriff Curtis became one of America’s finest photographers and ethnologists. Beginning in 1896 and ending in 1930, Curtis photographed and documented every major Native American tribe west of the Mississippi, taking over 40,000 negatives of eighty tribes. For thirty years, he devoted his life to an odyssey of photographing and documenting the lives and traditions of the Native people of North America. His photographs had an immense impact on the national imagination and continue to shape the way we see Native life and culture.
After the Civil War, the Curtis family moved to Cordova, Minnesota, where Curtis grew up near the Chippewa, Menomini, and Winnebago tribes, although most traditional Indian life there had disappeared by the time his family arrived in the 1870’s. In 1887, the Curtis family moved to Port Orchard, Washington. In 1895 Curtis began his Indian photography, and also invented gold and silver processes, now known as “goldtones” and “silver tints”. He established his artistic reputation through the famous 1899 Harriman expedition to Alaska as one of two official photographers. The year before, he had met George Bird Grinnell, a noted Indian expert who became instrumental in instructing Curtis on systematic methods required for gathering scientifically valid information.
In 1901, Curtis began a then self and family financed project to study all of the North American Indian tribes. For such a massive project, Curtis required the cooperation of the weather, vehicles, mechanical equipment, skilled technicians, scholars and researchers and the Indian tribes as well. He dispatched assistants to make tribal visits months in advance; Curtis would then travel by horseback or horse drawn wagon to visit the tribes in their home territory. Once on site, work would start by interviews and then photography; outside, in a structure, or inside his studio tent with an adjustable skylight. Not content with merely preserving the Native American heritage in photographs, Curtis also made 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian language and music. Many of these recordings still survive at the University of Indiana archives, and may be the only extant record of certain lost languages, music, and family histories.
Curtis originally thought the project would take 5 years, but it took 30. For its completion, it required 1.5 million dollars and the assistance of a vast array of patrons, researchers, scientists, editors, master craftsmen, interpreters, tribal elders, and medicine men. Ultimately the study cost Curtis his family (his wife, Clara Phillips and their four children), his financial security and his health. Nevertheless, he pursued his vision with a sense of mission to catalogue how the Indians had lived prior to their contact with the white man. “The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other,” believed Curtis, “...the information must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time.” His vision was prophetic, as by 1930, the year his first volume was published, few visible vestiges remained of the peoples who had once been the continent's sole inhabitants.
On October 21, 1952 at the age of 84, E. S. Curtis, virtually unknown, died of a heart attack in Los Angeles, California.
Reference: Christopher Cardozo Sacred Legacy; Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, George Horse Capture Shadow Catcher, Paula R. Fleming & J.L. Luskey Grand Endeavors of American Indian Photography, Tom Beck The Art of Edward Curtis