Edward S. Curtis, Whose Photos Defined a Race of People, ‘Reframed’

courtesy Arizona State Museum/ 'Mósa – Mohave,' 1903, by Edward S. Curtis (detail)

Lee Allen

Edward S. Curtis, Whose Photos Defined a Race of People, ‘Reframed’

For a camera-toting white guy wandering through Indian country more than a century ago, Edward S. Curtis didn’t do too badly in the photo department.

A veteran photographer by his mid-thirties, the adventurous lensman was financed by J.P. Morgan to gather some 1,500 images to be known as The North American Indian Project, visually capturing traditional Native American life. Publicity for the enterprise credited Curtis as its leader, categorizing him as “an intrepid Westerner venturing among wild, mysterious, even hostile, peoples, camera and six-gun at the ready.”

The project, one of the largest anthropological projects ever, challenged Curtis and crew to document life in Indian country and do so quickly. In the first of 20 volumes, published in 1907, Curtis noted, “Information to be gathered…respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind…must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.”

To accomplish the mission, Curtis embarked on what turned out to be a 30-year task — more than 40,000 images from 80 tribes — that took him in heat and snow to the remotest regions of the continent.

Curtis wanted the North American Indian project — with its oral histories and tribal summaries, language data, and musical transcriptions on wax cylinder recordings — to be a comprehensive compendium presenting nothing less than the very spirit of the Indian peoples.

Lauded by some for the magnificence of his photos, Curtis was decried by others for celebrating sacred events, not for their spiritual purpose, but for the camera. His iconic photogravure sepia-toned portraits continue to influence how the world thinks of Native Americans — like the latest exhibit, Curtis Reframed: The Arizona Portfolios, at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson. The show opens on November 9 and continues through July 2015.

Native art historian and Guest Curator Aleta Ringlero (Salt River Pima-Maricopa) has assembled a selection of the strongest images from Curtis' swing through Arizona in 1907. “Curtis was a master of the portrait,” she says. “The photographer visited Arizona six times over the course of his project, capturing a transition period as Indians moved into the 20th century…the past into the future…and Curtis’s intervention into this assimilation produced this visual legacy of tribal history.”

With The North American Indian project completed (last volume published in 1930), Curtis became a movie camera operator for major Hollywood film studios before turning his always adventurous attention to farming and gold mining. He died in 1952.