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Edward S. Curtis and the Romanticized West

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Self-portrait of photographer Edward S. Curtis, circa 1906. From the quality of this image, we can understand why his Seattle portrait studio was one of the most popular in town.

In this episode, the life and work of Edward S. Curtis, the photographer Native Americans called ‘the shadow catcher’

Full episode transcript

Hey everybody, Keith Dotson here. I maintain a photography blog that I call Shadows and Light, with the URL I catch shadows dot com, an obvious nod to the American photographer Edward S. Curtis, whom Native Americans gave the nickname “shadow catcher.” What an evocative way to characterize photography — as catching shadows.

Edward S. Curtis was one of America’s first rockstar photographers. In a self-portrait from 1906, he looked like an old west version of Brad Pitt, with a goatee and a slouched stetson. By his own description, he was over 6 feet tall and strong.

Self-portrait of photographer Edward S. Curtis, circa 1906. From the quality of this image, we can understand why his Seattle portrait studio was one of the most popular in town.
Self-portrait of photographer Edward S. Curtis, circa 1906. From the quality of this image, we can understand why his Seattle portrait studio was one of the most popular in town.

He convinced a particularly difficult investor to fund an effort to travel across the west capturing portraits of the fading Native American tribes. His adventure lasted for decades, and he made 40,000 glass plate negatives. The result was a mammoth twenty-volume publication called The North American Indian, with narrative text and photogravure images. Each volume is accompanied by a portfolio of large photogravure plates. The entire work has been digitized by Northwestern University and can be viewed online. I’ll include a link in the description.

Born in 1868 on a farm near Whitewater, Wisconsin, Edward Sheriff Curtis — yes, his middle name was Sheriff — was the son of a minister/farmer/military veteran. Curtis’s father was so badly weakened by his service in the American Civil War that he was incapable of properly managing the farm. In about 1874, the Curtis family left the farm in Wisconsin and moved closer to relatives in Le Sueur County, Minnesota. 

Young Edward dropped out of school in the sixth grade, and before long built his own camera. This early interest in photography would take this son of a poor midwestern farmer through a remarkable life — from poverty to fame, helping him earn the attention and support of luminaries like U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt and banking magnate J.P. Morgan. He would traverse the last wild vestiges of the American West, meeting and photographing America’s vanishing native people. He would meet Geronimo and Chief Joseph. And he would later move to Los Angeles to work as a photographer and cinematographer, where he lived until his death in the 1950s.

But as with most people, life wasn’t always kind to our hero. As you can imagine, Curtis was away from his Seattle home for extended periods of time — not a recipe for a happy marriage. In 1916, his wife filed for divorce and in 1919 she was awarded ownership of Curtis’ Seattle photography studio and all of his glass negatives. Apparently the family was divided with regards to parental loyalties, but Edward and his daughter Beth returned to the studio and destroyed his entire collection of glass negatives, rather than let ex-wife Clara own them. That deed must have been heartbreaking for Curtis, but it also robbed posterity of a great resource. And Edward was arrested in 1927 for failure to pay alimony, with the charges later dropped.

What followed for Curtis were lean years and money struggles.
But while his magnum opus, “The North American Indian” was a major accomplishment artistically and ethnographically, questions surround the authenticity of some of the images. There have been cases where retouched images have been identified — changes made by Curtis so that the images could suit his vision of what the Native Americans should look like rather than how actually they were in these later years.

Wilson Parker, a former Makah whaler photographed by Edward S. Curtis in 1915. It's said that he was wearing blue jeans under the bear skin cape.
Wilson Parker, a former Makah whaler photographed by Edward S. Curtis in 1915. It’s said that he was wearing blue jeans under the bear skin cape.

A photograph of a Makah whaler named Wilson Parker showed the man in a wig, barefoot, wearing a bear skin cape over hidden western clothes. In her biography of Curtis, Anne Makepeace claimed that under the bear skin, Parker was wearing blue jeans. Whaling was in fact already illegal when the photograph was taken. It’s an example of Curtis recreating a romanticized illusion of cultures that no longer existed. (Makepeace, 207).

In another famous example circa 1910 or 1911, two Piegan men — a father and son — are depicted inside a traditional lodge surrounded by items like a buffalo-skin shield, a medicine-bundle, and an eagle-wing fan — but a modern alarm clock was clumsily retouched from the final print.

In this unretouched photograph of two Piegan men in their lodge, we can see a modern clock on the floor.
In this unretouched photograph of two Piegan men in their lodge, we can see a modern clock on the floor.
In the retouched photograph, the clock has been replaced by a basket.
In the retouched photograph, the clock has been replaced by a basket.

It’s been claimed that Curtis paid Native Americans to pose or recreate simulated dances and ceremonies. Having very few rights in that era, some of the Natives may have had little choice but to take the badly needed money. But the Natives were no fools. One tribe agreed to be filmed doing a sacred ceremonial dance, but it was later revealed by a descendant they had fooled Curtis by performing the dance backwards. On the other hand, he gained such trust among the Piegan people that he was able to photograph some aspects of the secretive and sacred Sundance ceremony. These same images were later used as reference material by the modern tribe to help them revive the ceremony, which hadn’t taken place for over 40 years.

It’s also known that Curtis had a costume so-called “Indian” shirt that can be seen in many photographs of men from a variety of tribes. At least ten different men wore the same shirt for portraits.
Curtis’ work has been defended by some, including descendants of those pictured in the photographs. In a video companion to Anne Makepeace’s book Edward S. Curtis: Coming to Light, George Horse Capture said that the portrait of his great grandfather was not a stereotype — saying that you can’t stage the look in his eyes or the determination in his face. Horse Capture said you can criticize Curtis’ practices — carrying a costume shirt or whatever — but that his work was monumental. He said that if Curtis hadn’t captured these people in this way, “the loss would be tremendous.” (7)

As a boy in Minnesota, Edward Curtis would travel with his father on ministerial trips across the countryside. Having been ill since the war, the old man needed Edward to carry the loads, paddle the boat in Minnesota’s abundant rivers and waterways, to set up camp and to do the cooking. Curtis learned how to camp and how to love the outdoor life. 

But watching his father struggle to survive despite his hard labors convinced Edward to find another way. As a teenager he learned photography from books and built his own camera. He found his first photography job in St. Paul at a camera shop, where he learned printing and developing. He then had a go at his first photography business, but that quickly failed. 

After a few severe winters in the 1880s cost Edward’s father what was left of his farming and grocery business, he decided to move his family west to Puget Sound. He and Edward made the trip by train, and claimed a homestead across the Sound from Seattle. Edward cut trees and built a cabin. That’s how he got his start in the Pacific Northwest.

Life in Puget sound was hard work for Edward and the family. They cleared the forest, established an orchard, farmed, dug clams and fished, and they also hired out their strong backs to local lumber yards. Edward’s father died of pneumonia, and the responsibility for the family turned to him. After Edward suffered a serious back injury, he gained a renewed interest in photography.

Curtis chanced to buy an 11 x 14 view camera from a fellow on his way to California to look for gold. Edward’s mother, now a widow, perceived the camera hobby as frivolous and a waste of time, but Curtis used his spare time to improve his skills and to feed his desire to become a photographer. Finally, in 1891, he sold some property, mortgaged the family farm, and moved to Seattle to buy his way into a photography business. 

Edward S. Curtis perfected skills and grew his reputation — his portrait studio in Seattle went on to become quite prosperous and desirable for the upper crust. His daughter Florence Curtis Graybill once said, “Daughters of well-to-do families . . . believed that having their portraits made by Edward Curtis . . . gave them glamor.” (4)

An old print ad for the Seattle studio shows that it was called Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photo Engravers. The ad listed their services including line and half-tone portraits and illustrations, embossed cards, and letterheads. The address was 614 2nd Street in Seattle. Thomas Guptll left in 1897 and the business was all Curtis.

As I said, the quality of Curtis’ work attracted the wealthy of Seattle. His work won prestigious awards and praise in the Seattle press. He was skilled in the soft focus artistic style of photography that was popularized by Edward Steichen — the pictorialist style that aimed to make photography the artistic equivalent of painting.

But Curtis was a workaholic. Family members said Edward had no time for other distractions — he was all about the photography. When his daytime work at the studio was done, he would spend nights studying photographs and planning compositions. He even invented a unique process of producing golden toned prints called the Curt-tone. About himself, he later said instead of shadow catcher, he should have been called “the man who never took time to play.” (5)

But how and why did this hard-working, successful Seattle studio photographer become the man who prolifically photographed hundreds of tribes on thousands of glass plates over the course of 30 years?

His first photographs of a Native American were images of an elderly local woman called Princess Angeline, who was the daughter of Chief Seattle. She was paid $1.00 per photograph and said it was easier than digging for clams.

In 1898, while climbing Mount Rainier to make landscape photographs, Curtis encountered explorer George Bird Grinnell, who was editor of Forest and Stream magazine and an expert on the Plains Indians; and Clinton Hart Merriam, chief of the U.S. Biological Survey; and Gifford Pinchot, chief of the U.S. Department of the Interior Division of Forestry.

Curtis helped act as a guide for the explorers. The notable men were impressed by Curtis’ photography abilities and by his personality. Grinnell invited Curtis to join the Harriman Alaska Expedition as official photographer. On this trip, Curtis was able to learn firsthand how proper ethnographic work was done.

George Bird Grinnell extended another invitation in 1900, this time to visit the Blackfeet Indians of Montana. On this trip, Grinnell predicted that this Native American way of life would soon disappear — words that made an impression on Curtis and helped him forge the concept for his future journeys to photograph tribes. It was on this trip that Grinnell helped Curtis gain access to witness — and partially photograph — the ceremonies surrounding the sacred and secretive Sundance.

“Take a good look. We’re not going to see this kind of thing much longer. It already belongs to the past.” That’s a direct quote of words Grinnell said to Curtis in 1900, according to the Smithsonian Institution. 

In 1903, it was an award-winning portrait of a child, not a wilderness photograph, that caught the attention of America’s nature-loving President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt brought Curtis to Washington, DC to photograph his own family. One thing led to another, and Roosevelt became a champion of Curtis’ desire to photograph the Native tribes.

When the Native American photography project began, it was mostly funded by Curtis himself, with a little support of friends and family members. The expenses were draining and Curtis eventually contacted wealthy tycoon J.P. Morgan — a notoriously difficult and stubborn character — asking for financial support.

Initially, Morgan denied the request, but he was eventually swayed by the beauty of the images Curtis was making. Morgan paid $15,000 a year for five years to cover only the fieldwork portion. In exchange, he expected to receive 25 sets of the volumes and 500 prints. Morgan’s investment paid for photographic equipment, interpreters, ethnographic writers, and other costs for working in the field. This left Curtis responsible for the considerable financial burden of getting the volumes published. 

Of course, the work took far longer than five years — in fact, it lasted almost 30 years, leaving Curtis practically bankrupt, physically unwell, and as we mentioned before — divorced from his wife.

The Smithsonian said “In an era when domestic travel involved risk and uncertainty, he managed, through careful planning and tenacity, to cover 64,000 kilometers [40,000 miles] of western terrain by rail, by waterway, by foot, and by any other means he could find.”

But he did hit some snags in those travels. On one occasion in 1906, a burro carrying Curtis’ 6 x 8 inch dry-plate camera fell down a canyon and shattered the camera to pieces. It took Edward 12 hours to reassemble, repair, and basically patch the thing back to a usable condition. It was held together by a rope for the rest of that journey. No word on the condition of the burro.

On another occasion in 1911, Curtis lost a camera entirely and suffered a broken hip that gave him a permanent limp. He was shooting a Kwakiutl whale hunt from a canoe, when the boat got too close and the slap of a tail fin sent the boat and the camera to the bottom of the ocean, while the Kwakiutl whalers saved Curtis’ life.

Edward did more than just make photographs. His field wagon, pulled by a team of four horses, carried his camera gear and glass plates, but also recording equipment for recording voices, wax cylinders which were the recording media, moving picture cameras, a trunk of books, a typewriter, and the tents.

In 1966, artist Homer Boelter, who was a contemporary of Edward S Curtis, said “They carried two main tents, 10-by-12 and 12-by-12 feet, ‘A’ style with 6-foot walls. These had canvas floors sewed on to keep out snakes. The larger tent was used for interviews and recording group meetings; the other was Edward’s studio and workroom.”

Negatives were exposed in the daytime, developed at night. And then work prints would be made the next day, often on cyanotype paper that could be exposed in the sunshine and developed in plain water. Photogravures for book printing would be made back in Seattle at the studio.

Edward Curtis said tribes learned of his reputation by word-of-mouth, and awaited his coming to visit them. Sometimes they even sent messages requesting him to come if the expected visit was still several years away. (Makepeace, 199)

Beginning in 1907, volumes were published steadily, with two volumes in 1908, two more in 1909, and three in 1911.

In addition to the J.P. Morgan investment, which ended after five years, Curtis also sold subscriptions to help fund the project. While interest in Native tribes were strong when he started, that interest subsided over time. Subscriptions slumped in 1911 with a stock market slump. Subscriptions fell off again when the American public were distracted by worries over Word War I.

In 1920, Curtis and his daughter Beth opened a new studio in Los Angeles (remember, his ex-wife had been awarded ownership of the Seattle studio.) While in L.A., Curtis worked as a cinematographer to help fund the Native American Indians project. By the early 1920s, Americans’ interest in Native tribes was virtually non-existent. His ethnographic research was getting fewer citations and less interest from young scholars. Curtis was working in isolation.

When the mammoth project was completed in 1930, Curtis rejoiced, but there was no public fanfare. He was 62 years old, arthritic and in poor physical condition, broke, and unemployed.

Theodore Roosevelt died in 1909. J.P Morgan died in 1913. Edward S. Curtis died in 1952 at the home of his loyal daughter Beth and her husband in Los Angeles California.

Interest in Curtis’ research and photographs surged again in the 1970s. While controversial because of his dubious scientific standards and posed / costumed images, the completed project is undoubtedly a master work. And definitely a work of passion and determination.

The Smithsonian hosts a website with a lot of photos and illustrations related to the life of Edward S. Curtis and his family. I’ll include that and all the relevant links in the description.

And as I mentioned earlier, the entire project can be viewed online at Northwestern University Digital Library Collections, link also included in the write-up.

This was a long one, thank you for listening! 

I’ll talk to you again real soon.



1. Makepeace, Anne. Edward S. Curtis: Coming to Light. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C. 2001.

2. Northwestern University, Curtis Library. Edward Sheriff Curtis. The North American Indian. 1907-1930.

3. The Public Domain Review, Edward Curtis’ Photographs of Kwakwaka’wakw Ceremonial Dress and Masks (ca. 1914)

4. Smithsonian Institution Libraries. “Frontier Photographer Edward S. Curtis.”

5. Smithsonian Magazine, “Edward Curtis’ Epic Project to Photograph Native Americans”

6. Wikipedia. “Edward S. Curtis.”

7. YouTube. Makepeace Productions. “Edward Curtis Dressing Up.” 

Hosted by
Keith Dotson

Keith Dotson is a professional fine art photographer who specializes in black and white landscapes, cityscapes, and abstractions from nature.

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