Edward S. Curtis became interested in photography when he was 17 years old, back in 1885. Two years later, meanwhile having moved from Minnesota to Washington, he already co-owned a photo studio. Another ten years later, in 1895, Curtis met princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. She became his first of many Native American portraits.
In the years that followed, Curtis became more and more involved in Native American documentary photography, eventually earning him a $75,000 sponsorship by J.P. Morgan in 1906 to produce a series on the Native American culture. He was assigned to make 20 volumes, containing 1,500 photographs in total.
Curtis embarked on a quest to document Native American traditional life, “before it would disappear.” In a time span of more than 20 years, Curtis eventually took over 40,000 photographic images from over 80 tribes, alongside 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American language and music. 222 complete sets of pictures were eventually published in the 20 volume The North American Indian.
Meanwhile, things in Curtis’s personal life weren’t going well. In 1928, desperate for cash, he had to sell the rights to his project to J.P Morgan’s son. In 1935, the Morgan estate sold the rights and remaining unpublished material to the Charles E. Lauriat Company. Lauriat bound the remaining loose printed pages and sold them with the completed sets. The remaining material remained untouched in their Boston basement until they were rediscovered in 1972.
But the Library of Congress also acquired a lot of Curtis’s work. From about 1900 through 1930, they collected more than 2,400 silver-gelatin, first generation photographic prints made from Curtis’s original glass negatives. About two-thirds (1,608) of these images were not published in The North American Indian volumes, and therefore offer a different and unique glimpse into Curtis’s work with indigenous cultures.
Even though Curtis’s work was widely hailed for its extensiveness, being called “the most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible,” he was also subject of criticism for allegedly manipulating his images. Curtis actively removed traces of Western material culture in many of his pictures. By reinforcing their native identity as a tragic vanishing race, some believe Curtis detracted attention from the true plight of American natives.
All pictures form part of the Edward S. Curtis Collection of the Library of Congress. Some of them were published in Curtis’s The North American Indian.