Edward Curtis – The North American Indian

Organized by the Muskegon Museum of Art, Edward Curtis:  The North American Indian is one of the largest and most comprehensive surveys, perhaps ever undertaken, of Edward S. Curtis’s life work. The exhibition includes all 723 photogravures (fine art intaglio-printed photographs) from the work’s world-famous portfolios. The prints depict Native American life over a century ago in stunning portraits, landscapes, lifestyles, and rituals.

The premises underlying this exhibition are that:

  • The North American Indian is a monumental achievement of ethnographic and photographic depth, representing one of the most significant aesthetic, historic and anthropological studies of the surviving late 19th and early 20th century Western Native American cultures;
  • The individual photogravures that are included in this collection are an unmatched and profound expression of late 19th and early 20th century photographic Pictorialism and Romanticism.
  • The Native American subjects were active and engaged participants and partners with Curtis in a collaborative ethnographic undertaking unlike any that had come before.
  • The North American Indian provides an important forum for continued discussions and critiques of Curtis’s impact on our views of Native American history, culture, and identity in the face of a dominant culture.

As a way to study, appreciate, and critique Curtis’s achievement and to help visitors experience Curtis’s work in as intimate and accessible a way as possible, the exhibition is divided into a series of distinct but related thematic sections. In each of the sections of the exhibitions, Edward Curtis’s photogravures are arranged thematically in groups that reflect the way he shaped his study of the Native American Indians he lived among for over 40 years. In this way, visitors have the opportunity to experience and absorb the astonishing depth and range of the visual images.


Section 1: Lulu Miller and the Acquisition of The North American Indian

Available only by subscription, the North American Indian was terrifically expensive in its time—$3000 for the volumes printed on a specially made Dutch vellum paper and $3500 for the Japanese paper edition. (Over $80,000 in today’s dollars.) Muskegon’s Hackley Public Library director at the time, Lulu Miller, understood very early the importance of Curtis’s work, and so secured subscription #70 for the library and community.

The exhibition, in part, is a celebration of a singular, bold, visionary woman, and of the community of Muskegon as a whole which has respected and cared for the work for over 100 years. In Section 1 we tell this part of the story through original historical documents, letters, photographs, and other ephemera from the Museum’s files.

Section 2: Edward S. Curtis Background and Biography

Born near Whitewater, Wisconsin, in 1868, and later growing up in Cordova, Minnesota, the son of an impoverished itinerant preacher and a farm wife, Edward Curtis completed only a 6th grade education.

At the age of 12 Curtis built his first camera with a lens his father brought back from the Civil War. In 1885 he worked for a year as an apprentice photographer in a St. Paul, Minnesota, studio.

In 1886 he and his father moved to rural Washington Territory. Some of the family later followed, but his father died soon thereafter.

As a young man, Curtis worked a number of grueling jobs including on railway crews, clam digging, and logging. In 1890 he severely injured his back logging and was nursed by a neighbor, Clara Philips. During his long recovery, he bought his first view camera. Two years later Curtis and Clara Philips married and he bought a half-interest in a Seattle photography studio.

Between 1898 and 1905 Curtis won numerous national awards for his studio photography, including the grand prize and gold medal at the 1898 National Photographic Convention.

Section 3: Life and Context: Edward Curtis and The North American Indian

By 1897 Curtis was the sole owner of his own photography studio and was Puget Sound’s most prominent and celebrated studio photographer.

The same year he began leading mountaineering expeditions on Mt. Rainier, sponsored by Portland’s Mazamas Club. As a youngster, Curtis had spent many hours camping and canoeing in Wisconsin’s and Minnesota’s woods with his father, instilling in him a lifelong love of the outdoors and adventuring, and he was a gifted and passionate mountaineer.

In probably the single luckiest and most important moment in his life, one late day in 1898 near dusk during a bad storm high on Rainer’s glacier fields, Curtis rescued a group of lost climbers including George Bird Grinnell, chief of the U.S. Biological Survey and the founder of the Audubon Society; C. Hart Merriam, first chief of the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy of the United States Department of Agriculture, (today’s United States Fish and Wildlife Service); and Gifford Pinchot, the head of Theodore Roosevelt’s new U.S. Forest Department.

Soon thereafter, Merriam recommended Curtis to the railroad magnate Edward Harriman as the official photographer for Harriman’s 1899 Alaska Expedition. In the group were the noted scientist and writer John Muir, the naturalist John Burroughs, Grinnell and Merriam, and a veritable who’s who of the leading American scientists, naturalists, and anthropologists of the day. Curtis sailed with this group for two months—a young man from the Midwest with a 6th grade education daily absorbing the broad and diverse knowledge of the most important intellectuals and scientists of the day.

In 1900 Grinnell, who had fostered deep ties to Northwest Montana’s surviving Native American tribes, invited Curtis to photograph the Piegan’s Sundance Ceremony. Curtis is deeply and permanently moved by the experience.

These two experiences together—all predicated by that chance rescue on Mt. Rainier—sets Curtis on his life’s work: photographing all aspects of Native life (among surviving tribes west of the Missouri River), studying their culture and mores, recording songs and ceremonies, and recording and translating the languages of over eighty surviving Native American tribal groups. Like many leading scholars and humanists at the time, Curtis believed that Native American culture was disappearing forever under the crushing weight of Anglo-American cultural dominance and racism. Though Curtis and others would be proved wrong, it was this deeply-held belief that set Curtis on his mission. In a 1900 letter to George Bird Grinnell, he said, “It’s such a big dream, I can’t see it all.”

In 1904 he met President Theodore Roosevelt—again, through those friendships formed on Mt. Rainier and the Harriman Expedition—photographs his children, and later Roosevelt’s daughter’s wedding. Roosevelt becomes a deep and important friend, later contributing the Forward to the first volume of the North American Indian. And in 1906 Curtis meets J.P. Morgan, then the richest man in the world, who agrees to fund Curtis’s field work for the North American Indian —but significantly and tragically, not a salary for what will become decades of work.

After over four decades, many setbacks, World War I, the Great Depression, years at a time separated from Clara and their four children, a later bitter and acrimonious divorce, a mysterious four-year hiatus in his work, the constant travel and nuisance of fundraising, and at times even real poverty, the work finally culminates in the completion of the North American Indian, the 20 volumes and their portfolios of photogravures delivered to subscribers between 1907 and 1930. When Volume I was published, it was celebrated by The New York Herald as, “The most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible,” and received rave reviews throughout the U.S. and in major European newspapers and journals.

In 1912 Curtis established a film company to help fund his work and invested heavily in his first film, In the Land of the Headhunters, filmed among the Kwakiutl people in the northern Pacific Northwest. The film is considered the first documentary and full-length film made about Native Americans. It premiered in New York in 1914 and was a critical success but a complete financial failure, even though it toured numerous American cities. The restored film will be playing throughout the run of the exhibition.

Tragically, by 1930 and the delivery of the final volume, interest in Curtis’s work and the North American Indian has all but evaporated. Curtis was broke; he had sold fewer than 250 subscriptions of the planned, and budgeted, 500 that were printed; the times and tastes had changed dramatically and permanently; and a man who had been a friend to Presidents and the powerful in politics and society on both coasts, the most celebrated society photographer in Puget Sound and beyond, the most famous “Indian photographer” of his day, was now virtually unknown, the work ignored.

Curtis moved to Los Angeles to be close to two of his daughters—he was close to all four of his children—dabbled at mining, farming, and inventing, and wrote several treatises on different subjects. But he was virtually unknown in the photographic and intellectual worlds.

It was not until the later 1970s that the North American Indian was rediscovered by a new generation and the monumental work found a new audience. But it was too late for Edward S. Curtis who died of a heart attack on October 9, 1952 at the Los Angeles home of his daughter Beth.

Section 4: Edward Curtis, the Artist

The North American Indian contains over 1400 illustrative photogravures bound into the 20 volumes, and the 723 individual portfolio gravures which are all included in this exhibition. But no artist maintains the highest aesthetic standards over the course of making 2000 or more pictures—and, indeed, scholars estimate that Curtis made over 10,000 images during his work on the North American Indian.

In Section 3 above and in this section we feature over 100 of the indisputably excellent photogravures—the masterworks—that Curtis made during the many decades studying and living among Native American peoples. These are the iconic images that almost anyone recognizes today, even if they do not know the name Edward S. Curtis: Canón de Chelly, The Vanishing Race, Chief Joseph, Mosa, Two Hopi Girls in Window, A Son of the Desert, At the Trysting Place, Qahatika Girl, The Rush Gatherer—Kutenai, and so many other powerful, iconic images.

Also included in this section are examples of Curtis’s large-format view cameras and their glass-plate negatives, a group of the exquisite original copper plates from which the photogravures were printed, and a video on the complex and fascinating photogravure printing process.

Section 5: Legacy and Controversy

Though Curtis’s 20-volume masterpiece is today considered by many unmatched for its importance, not all contemporary artists, art historians, ethnographers, and anthropologists—Native and Anglo alike—are comfortable with some of its aesthetic and intellectual content. Curtis’s portraiture, some argue, reinforces a reductive image of Native American culture as “primitive,” “innocent,” and worse. He clearly staged many of his images, sometimes dressing his subjects in clothing and regalia he carried with him throughout the West. Many of the images are obviously staged, stilted, and unnatural as Curtis sought to mold his subjects and their lives to his preconceived notions of what was “real” and “authentic” (as in, not influenced by Anglo culture) in Native culture.

We are exhibiting several of the published photogravures along with the original images which Curtis later doctored for publication, taking out the accidental inclusion of 20th century trappings —an alarm clock, a car, Anglo-influenced clothing— in this way “scrubbing” the finished image clean of any modern trappings.

In this section we also bring together a diverse chorus of voices, both Native and non-Native, to consider, study, and interpret Curtis’s legacy. Included are several Native artists, both their prints and paintings and their voices, who ask important questions about Curtis’s assumptions and legacy—Larry McNeil (Tlingit) and Jim Denhomie (Ojibwa). Native and Anglo scholars whose views are also included in this section are Joe Horse Capture (Assiniboine), Deana Drutt (Kwakiutl), Rod Slemmons, Louise Erdrich (Ojibwa) and several others.

Section 6: The Depth of the North American Indian

In the museum’s largest two galleries, over 300 of Edward Curtis’s photogravures are arranged thematically in groups that reflect his strategy and the way he shaped his study (as they are grouped as well in the previous five sections).
Curtis made wax cylinder recordings of over 80 tribes’ stories, songs, and ceremonies and in this section there is a listening area where visitors can hear examples of this rare and precious ethnographic history.

Also in this section and throughout several of the above sections, there are numerous Native American cultural objects identical or closely related to Curtis’s images of Native tools, art, clothing, toys, and other aspects of day-to-day life.
This section will include a large-scale map of the Western U.S. showing the location of the tribes Curtis lived among and studied, as well as timelines of Curtis’s life, American history from 1885 to 1930, and Native American history in the same time.

Young People’s Art-making Area

Accompanying this historic exhibition is a full array of educational programs and opportunities for the public to immerse themselves in this remarkable story and record of Native American life.