Edward S. Curtis’s 20-volume compendium, The North American Indian
is the most important photographic/ethnographic project ever undertaken in the United States. Curtis dedicated 30 years of his life to photographing Native American life in the northwest and southwest, becoming the foremost photographer of America’s indigenous people. Edward S. Curtis and the Vanishing Race
is the first major exhibition of Curtis’s work in his home state in a decade.
Born near Whitewater, Wisconsin, in 1868, Curtis spent more than three decades crisscrossing the country, traveling to tribal lands to meticulously document the lives and traditions of 80 tribes. Originally a partner in a portrait studio in Seattle, Curtis was an outdoorsman by heart. In 1898, while shooting the peaks of Mount Rainier, a serendipitous encounter with a lost climbing party changed the direction of his career forever. To Curtis’s surprise, his run-in was with the founder of the Audubon Society and editor of Forest and Stream, George Bird Grinnell, and the co-founder of the National Geographic Society, Clint Merriam. These two distinguished men took to Curtis and his photographs, opening the doors to voyages across Alaska and introducing him to prominent people, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, who later proved important in his quest to document the Native American experience.
In 1906, Curtis abandoned his studio to pursue his mission to photograph and document the appearances, languages, and customs of the quickly disappearing indigenous tribes. Because of his connections, Curtis was able to secure a hefty sponsorship from financier J.P. Morgan. However, even with Morgan’s support, Curtis faced punishing travel, no pay, physical danger, and the destruction of his marriage, in exchange for hundreds of thousands of photogravures that now are considered a significant part of the North American cultural heritage. Had it not been for his obsessive determination and sacrifice, much of what we know today about America’s indigenous peoples would have been lost.
Over the years, Curtis’s work has attracted controversy for some of its editing and posing of subjects, yet the fact remains that his motives were pure: he wanted to create a record of centuries-old customs, clothing, lifestyle and language of Native Americans for posterity before they vanished or were debased by the encroachment of white culture. Edward S. Curtis and the Vanishing Race
examines Curtis’s legacy and the related context of Native American identity in Wisconsin.
Listen to “Photographing Native Americans
,” an “On Point with Tom Ashbrook,” radio interview featuring Timothy Egan
, a Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist for the New York Times
and author of “Short Night of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis