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Photographers You Should Know: Edward S. Curtis

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Information for this article was received from the Smithsonian Institution.

Edward S. Curtis is one of the most widely recognized, and sometimes criticized, photographers of American Native people. For more than three decades, he traveled the American West and Alaska photographing Native Americans.
Born February 16, 1868, in Wisconsin, Curtis took an interest in photography – then an emerging medium – at an early age. He built his first camera when he was a teenager and by the age of 19, he owned part interest in a photography studio in Seattle, where his family had moved.

‘Sioux Chiefs.’ (Photo Credit: Edward S. Curtis via the Smithsonian Institution)

‘Sioux Chiefs.’ (Photo Credit: Edward S. Curtis via the Smithsonian Institution)

In his twenties, Curtis began photographing Native American in the Puget Sound area as they dug for clams and mussels. One of his earliest photographs of Native Americans was of Princess Angeline, the daughter of Sealth, the Suquamish chief after whom Seattle was named.

In 1899, at the age of 31, Curtis became the official photographer of the Harriman Expedition into Alaska. After this, he began his 30-year quest of documenting Native Americans in the United States.

Curtis funded his expeditions personally – acquiring a tremendous amount of debt – and by soliciting funds for his work. Some of his donors included President Theodore Roosevelt and railroad tycoon John Pierpont Morgan.

Curtis documented nearly 80 Native American tribes and made nearly 40,000 photographs and 10,000 recording of Native American speech and music. Like most scholars of his time, Curtis believed the Native American culture would be lost as Native Americans were brought into the mainstream culture. He wanted to create both an artistic and academic volume of work before the cultures “vanished.”

Curtis died in 1952 and the bulk of his work was forgotten. During the 1960s and 1970s, however, his work was “rediscovered” and is now recognized as one of the “most significant records of Native culture ever produced.”

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