A Portrait of the American Indian
At the beginning of the 20th century, Edward S. Curtis set out to document what he saw as a disappearing race: the Native American.
From 1907 to 1930, Curtis took more than 2,000 photos of 80 tribes stretching from the Great Plains to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. He then published and sold these photos, along with narrative text, in 20 volumes of work known as “The North American Indian.”
It is one of the most significant collections of its kind, “probably the most important photographic document of its age and its topic,” said Jeffrey Garrett, associate university librarian for Special Libraries at Northwestern University. But it also comes with an asterisk. “There is still a lot of reluctance to accept the Curtis images as being historically valid,” Garrett said.
For starters, all the images were staged.
“These are not snapshots,” Garrett said. “There is a clear lack of spontaneity. People were instructed to dress up for the shot, so they’re in their tribal finery.”
Some also perceive the collection as patronizing, a white man’s idealized view of Native Americans at the time. “A little bit of romanticization on (Curtis’) part would help sell his product and also his hope was that it would engender sympathy for Native Americans,” Garrett said.
Northwestern, in collaboration with the Library of Congress, has digitized all of Curtis’ images and posted them online. “It is an attempt to take the historical materials that we have and preserve them and make them accessible,” Garrett said. “We get an enormous number of requests for high-resolution prints from this collection, many of which then end up in books.”
Even Native Americans have ordered prints from the collection. Garrett said it seems that more people are starting to come around on Curtis’ work and accept it despite its shortcomings.
“The romanticization of Edward Curtis’ eye on Native American history corresponds sometimes very nicely with the romanticization of modern Native Americans looking back to their own past and wanting to see it as being noble, monumental and heroic,” he said.
“The North American Indian” was published as a limited edition and sold by subscription. Because it was printed on the finest paper and bound in expensive leather, it was very expensive. Subscriptions were about $3,000 in 1907 and about $4,200 in 1924.
In 1935, the project was liquidated and the remaining materials were sold to a rare book dealer in Boston. That included 19 unsold sets as well as thousands of individual prints and the handmade copper photogravure plates that Curtis used to make the prints. These assets lived in the bookstore’s basement until they were rediscovered in the 1970s.
Curtis’ sponsor for the project was financier J.P. Morgan. Morgan paid Curtis $75,000 over five years, allowing Curtis to purchase the equipment he needed and hire interpreters and researchers.