Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian

  • POSED WITH POISE: Hanovi-Walapai snake priest

    Edward S. Curtis from Coming to Light, a video
  • Edward Sheriff Curtis: Visions of a Vanishing Race, by Florence Curtis Graybill and Victor Boesen, Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2000. Paperback: $29.95


Visionary photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis spent 30 years documenting the waning cultures of North American Indians. But following his death in 1952, his work plummeted into obscurity.

Curtis' photographs were a mix of stoic portraiture, peopled landscapes and illustrations of tribal life. He photographed Nez Perce Chief Joseph, Apache leader Geronimo, and a host of others. But by the time he'd published many of his images in his 20-volume The North American Indian - a project that took from 1904 to 1930 to complete - his subjects had fallen from popular interest. And by the onset of the Great Depression, few people could afford the costly tomes.

Then in 1972, a Boston bookstore clerk stumbled upon a collection of Curtis' glass negatives, hand-etched copper plates and hundreds of yellowing photographs. What followed was a Curtis revival, during which his photographs became both renowned and controversial.

Curtis occasionally posed individuals from unrelated tribes in the same ceremonial shirts or war bonnets, and he sometimes used overly romantic postures. Franz Boas was among the academics who criticized these methods, even though the famed ethnographer sometimes used similar tactics. Native Americans passionately differed as to whether Curtis exploited Indian people or created a valuable record of their cultures.

Now there are two new works that revisit the life and work of the Minnesota farm boy turned pre-eminent photographer.

In Edward Sheriff Curtis: Visions of a Vanishing Race, the photographer's daughter, Florence Curtis Graybill, and Victor Boesen have released 175 of Curtis' classic photographs. The book is a frank and intimate journey into the worlds that Edward Curtis and his family experienced.

Equally intimate is Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians, a documentary film from Anne Makepeace. Makepeace interviews many descendants of Curtis' subjects with the same trusting and honest demeanor that Curtis is said to have used with his subjects. The film is as much a continuation of Curtis' work as it is a biography.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and JT Thomas

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