Pima Baskets, 1907


Edward S. Curtis, the Man Who Photographed the American West

By William O’Connor

The Daily Beast | 12.20.2015

“It is not unprecedented, whether in this country or internationally, to see people at exhibitions moved to tears while looking at his photographs,” writes Christopher Cardozo in the introduction to a stunning new book, Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks, published by Prestel. The book compiles the photographer’s master prints, “those prints made in the darkroom for exhibition and/or sale.”

Curtis is today one of the most popular and internationally recognized of American photographers. Even for those who don’t recognize his name, they nearly always recognize his iconic images of Native Americans and the West. In the book, Cardozo has done a fantastic job of capturing why Curtis is an irreplaceable part of American cultural history.

While his work has sometimes faced modern criticism for portraying an overly romantic image of Native Americans, his “work changed the way our nation viewed Native Americans and generated a broad-ranging dialogue for greater compassion, understanding, and inclusion.”

Curtis was born in 1868 in Wisconsin, and grew up Minnesota. As Cardozo notes, at that time, Native American life in the state was a shadow of its former self. As a teenager, he apprentived as a photographer in St. Paul. When his family moved to Seattle in 1887, his twin interests of photographry and Native American life took off.

By 1898, Curtis was starting to receive acclaim for his photographs,and was invited on the Harriman Alaska Expedition. This expedition was to be a significant inflection point in his career, as it “gave him his first real grounding in the discipline and rigors of the scientific method. As the official expedition photographer, he was intimately involved in many aspects of the voyage, and his intellectual horizons were greatly broaded by the scholarly company.”

Curtis is perhaps most famous for his work on The North American Indian, a J.P. Morgan-commissioned collection of 2,234 original photographs and 5,000 pages of text on the Native Americans that consumed his life between 1906 and 1930.

“Curtis is sometimes viewed simply as an ethnographic photographer, overlooking his gifts as a practitioner of fine-art photography,” writes Cardozo.

“He realized that he could not only preserve a record of the history, culture, and profound humanity of Native peoples but felt absolutely compelled to do so before they vanished forever,” Cardozo explains.

 Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks by Christopher Cardozo. Published by Prestel