Edward S. Curtis: Artist or historian?



In 1895, Edward S. Curtis met and photographed Princess Angeline (1800-1896) aka Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. Hers would be the first of 40,000 photographs Curtis took of Native Americans from 80 different tribes during his life.

A selection of his work is now on display at The Open Shutter Gallery, and art historian Marilee Jantzer-White will lead visitors on a tour of the images Monday evening, exploring the ethnographic, historic and artistic viewpoints Curtis held.

It wasn’t the image of the aged princess that launched Curtis to create his seminal work, The North American Indian Projec, Jantzer-White said this week.

Instead, it was an expedition in 1900 with George Bird Grinnell during which he saw the Sun Dance at an encampment of Blood, Blackfeet and Algonquin people in Montana. That was followed by a visit to the Hopi reservation in Arizona a few months later that fueled his desire to document the tribes west of the Mississippi that still maintained their native ways and customs.

Curtis was supported in his project by the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology, President Theodore Roosevelt and his financial patron J. P. Morgan who agreed in 1906 to pay him $15,000 for five years to create his 20-volume work.

By 1922, Curtis had only published 12 volumes. Volumes 19 and 20 finally were published in 1930, but five years later the North American Indian Corporation liquidated its assets and sold the materials from the project to the Charles Lauriat Co., a rare book dealer in Boston.

Lauriat acquired 19 sets of The North American Indian along with thousands of individual prints and the handmade copper photogravure plates. Curtis’ original glass plate negatives were left in the Morgan Library basement and eventually were destroyed or sold for next to nothing.

Several of these original prints and reproductions from Curtis’ handmade photogravure plates are on exhibit at Open Shutter. Because copyright law does not protect Curtis’ work, cheaper reproductions are often available, but they are not what you will find in this showAround 1970, Karl Kernberger of Santa Fe found almost 285,000 original photogravures and copper plates at the Charles E. Lauriat bookstore and rediscovered the work of Curtis. He bought all of the surviving Curtis material with Jack Loeffler and David Padwa. They launched exhibits at the Pierpoint Morgan Library and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The controversies surrounding Curtis’ work remain. His obituary in 1952 listed him as first and foremost as an “internationally known authority on the history of the North American Indian.” It concluded with, “he was also widely known as a photographer.”

Today, he is known as an artist. His ethnographic work has been called into question because most of his photos were posed or staged and he intentionally removed all hints at Western society such as clocks, umbrellas and clothing. Curtis believed, as many scholars of the time did, that all Native American cultures would be absorbed into white society and entirely disappear. He wanted to catalog what he considered to be a “vanishing race.”

Instead, Curtis turns the lens back on Euro American society and by romanticizing the cultural beliefs of Native Americans manages to make the viewer question society’s obsession with capturing history.

If you go

Marilee Jantzer-White will give a free guided tour and lecture on Edward S. Cutis and his photographs of American Indians at 6 p.m. Monday, The Open Shutter Gallery, 735 Main Ave.

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