- Historic Sites
The Splendid Indians Of Edward S. Curtis
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
A limited edition of the entire set of Curtis gravures, as well as individual copies taken from the original plates of those appearing in this portfolio, are available to AMERICAN HERITAGE subscribers. Information on either the sets or individual gravures may be obtained by writing to Mr. Martin Rapp, American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc., 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, New York 10020.
Curds’ photography of Indians began soon after he first arrived at Puget Sound from Wisconsin in 1887, when he was nineteen. In the Midwest he had already learned the photographer’s trade. Fascinated by a stereopticon given him when he was a boy by his father, a Civil War veteran and minister in the United Brethren Church, and inspired by a book on photography, he had built his own camera, using two wooden boxes and the stereo lenses. In time he landed a job in a St. Paul photographic gallery, working in a darkroom and taking commercial pictures. When his father fell ill and the family migrated to the milder climate of Washington Territory, Edward went along and helped build a log cabin in what was still sparsely settled country across Puget Sound from Seattle.
His father died soon after the move, and Edward, one of” four brothers and sisters, became the chief breadwinner, taking odd jobs like the others but also buying a good camera and bringing in money from his photography. There were many picturesque subjects in the area—the mountains and dense forests, still almost wilderness, the new settlements in the Washington valleys, and the shipping in Puget Sound. But there were also many Indians, survivors of numerous coastal tribes, and Curtis was drawn more and more to them as subjects, paying them a dollar or so to pose for portraits and photographing them as they fished, trapped, and hunted seals in the harbors. Less than forty years before, he recognized, these Indians had been the proud, free owners of the region. Then they were crushed, forced to cede their lands, and overrun and debauched by white society. As he photographed them he imagined what they had been like before the white man came. Although theirs was now a life of poverty, sickness, alcoholism, and helplessness—the demoralized plight of what most people of the time considered a vanishing race—Curtis increasingly tried to idealize them, to picture them as they might have looked in the past. Taking great pains with the poses, settings, expressive actions, and dress and ornamentation of his subjects and making sure, as he once explained, that no sign of white civilization crept into his shots, he strove for an evocative quality that would convey the original dignity and humanity of the tribesmen. In addition, to heighten the dramaticmood he frequently retouched his negatives, printing them with a soft and fuzzy tone that eliminated many background details. The net effect, of course, was a misrepresentation of reality, but this did not bother him.
His Indian pictures, displayed and sold in a Seattle photograph store, soon became very popular, and several of them, entered in contests and photographic exhibitions that toured the United States and Europe, won prizes and medals. In 1892 he married and, with a hundred fifty dollars of borrowed money, bought a partnership in a Seattle studio. Two years later he became sole owner, continuing to photograph local Indians but also catering to the market for scenic views of the Northwest. Becoming a skilled mountaineer in the process, he photographed the peaks of the Cascades, particularly Mount Rainier. There, in 1898, he came upon a lost party and guided it to safety. It proved to be a turning point in his life. Among the group he rescued were several nationally prominent persons, including Gifford Pinchot, chief of the United States Forest Service, Dr. C. Hart Merriam, chief of the United States Biological Survey, and George Bird Grinnell, editor of Forest and Stream magazine and a well-known naturalist and writer on the Blackfoot Indians.
Grinnell and Curtis became good friends, and the following year Grinnell, who was greatly impressed by Curtis’ Indian photographs, invited him to accompany a twomonth exploring expedition by ship along the Alaskan coast, organized and financed by E. H. Harriman, the railroad tycoon. It was a boatload of famous men. Among the passengers were John Muir, who was then studying glaciers, John Burroughs, the ornithologist and author, and Henry Gannett of the United States Geological Survey. Curtis, the chief photographer, had an opportunity to widen his circle of influential friends and with an assistant, D. G. Inverarity of Seattle, took more than five thousand photographs.
When it was over, Grinnell invited him on another excursion the next year, this time on a visit for two weeks to the Piegan Indians, one of the Blackfoot tribes, in northern Montana. Grinnell’s friendship with the Indians permitted the two men to observe the sacred ceremony of the sun dance, as well as intimate details of tribal daily life. The experience made an enormous impact on Curtis and inspired the project that was to occupy him for the next thirty years. Unlike the crushed and dispossessed Indians around Puget Sound, the Piegans, he noted, still retained a large measure of their original culture. What he and Grinnell had been privileged to view, he felt, was known to few white men and would soon be gone.