Edward Sheriff Curtis

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Date: 1977
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 613 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1180L

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About this Person
Born: February 19, 1868 in Madison, Wisconsin, United States
Died: October 19, 1952 in Los Angeles, California, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Photographer
Other Names: Curtis, Edward; Curtis, Edward S.
Full Text: 

Curtis, Edward Sheriff (Feb. 19, 1868 - Oct. 19, 1952), photographer, was born on a small farm near Whitewater, Wis., the son of Johnson and Ellen Sheriff Curtis. His father, who had returned from the Civil War poor and disabled, was an itinerant preacher until ill health forced him into semiretirement. Curtis briefly attended elementary school, but soon had to leave to help support his family. When he was in his late teens, he developed an interest in photography; at about the same time his family moved to the Puget Sound area of Washington, where his father soon died. Curtis sold firewood, did farm chores, and as a hobby began photographing the Indians of the area, who were mostly an itinerant, displaced group. He began to make photographic portraits and opened a small studio, while continuing to establish increasingly friendly relationships with the local Indians.

Curtis' professional career was shaped by a chance meeting with George Bird Grinnell, editor of Forest and Stream magazine. Grinnell had been a member of a climbing party lost on Mount Rainier; Curtis, on a photographic mission in the area, rescued him. The two became friends, and Grinnell arranged that Curtis should be the photographer for the 1899 Alaskan expedition sponsored by railroad tycoon E. H. Harriman. Curtis made several thousand photographs in the course of the expedition. Grinnell also introduced Curtis to the Piegan and Blackfoot tribes, and Curtis developed a particular rapport with the latter. He soon began a serious study of Indian life and culture, in the hope of producing, as he later wrote, "an irrefutable record of a race doomed to extinction--to show the Indian as he was in his normal, noble life so people will know he was no debauched vagabond but a man of proud stature and noble heritage."

In May 1892 Curtis married Clara Phillips; they had four children. The marriage, however, suffered from Curtis' long absences in the field as he became ever more absorbed in his Indian studies. As his reputation grew, he made influential friends, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who named Curtis official photographer for his daughter Alice's wedding to Nicholas Longworth. It was at Roosevelt's urging that Curtis asked financier J. P. Morgan, in 1906, to fund his Indian project. Morgan was enthusiastic. "I want to see these photographs," he said, "in a set of books, the handsomest ever published." Within the next five years he gave Curtis some $75,000.

The first volume of Curtis' monumental The North American Indian appeared in 1907. Roosevelt provided a foreword, in which he wrote that Curtis "has not only seen the Indians' vigorous outward existence but has caught glimpses, such as few White men ever catch, into that strange spiritual and mental life of theirs from whose innermost recesses all White men are forever barred."

Twenty volumes of The North American Indian were eventually published, the last in 1930. Each volume was a compilation of facts concerning the games, myths, sacred rites, musical forms, architecture, and demography of the tribes of a specific region, and each was accompanied by an illustrative portfolio of some 1,000 photographs. Curtis selected his illustrations from the more than 40,000 pictures that he made in preparation for the work; his photographs, made by natural light with a six-by-eight reflex camera, represent one of the finest pieces of graphic anthropology ever produced. The work appeared in a limited edition of 500 sets, at a cumulative cost of more than $1.5 million.

In addition to The North American Indian Curtis also wrote Indian Days of Long Ago (1914) and made a sixteen-millimeter film, In the Land of the Head Hunters (1915). He died in Los Angeles, Calif.


[There is an extensive file on Curtis at the University of Washington Library in Seattle, Wash. See also Caspar W. Weinberger, Jr., "Images of Dying Indian Nation Enjoy Rebirth," Smithsonian Magazine, Apr. 1975; Don Fowler, In A Sacred Manner We Live (1972); Ralph Andrews, Photographers of the Frontier West (1965); Westerners' Club Book of Los Angeles (1966); T. C. McCluhan, Portraits From North American Indian Life (1972), which reproduces much of Curtis' work; The North American Indians, A Selection of Photographs by Edward S. Curtis (1972); and Camera Magazine, Dec. 1973. Curtis was also the subject of a documentary film by T. C. McCluhan, The Shadow Catcher, released in 1975.]

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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310015233