The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis: Portraits of Native America

On view November 9, 2001 to March 31, 2002

Located in the: Special Exhibition Galleries

Edward Sheriff Curtis was just thirty-three years old in 1901 when he began his legendary effort to document the life and cultures of the North American Indian through photographs and interviews. By 1930 he had studied more than eighty tribes, taken more than 40,000 photographs, and earned the support of Theodore Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan, among others.

A century later “the work of Edward Curtis is so ubiquitous that his vision of the American Indian has in fact become the popular vision of the American Indian,” says Clark Worswick, curator of photography for the Peabody Essex Museum.

The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis: Portraits of Native America will showcase more than sixty original prints drawn from the Peabody Essex collection, considered the finest museum compilation of Curtis prints anywhere. They represent those images that Curtis himself selected for an exhibition he called The North American Indian, which traveled to Boston and other U.S. cities in the first decade of the twentieth century. As such, the Peabody Essex Museum exhibition will focus on Curtis the artist, and what he wanted his art to accomplish. It will run through March 17, 2002 and then travel to the George Eastman House in New York and the Amon Carter Museum in Texas.

In 1905-1906 Curtis put together a series of exhibitions also called The North American Indian, which traveled the East Coast and eventually to Boston.

There Dr. Charles Goddard Weld, a lover of photography and supporter of the Peabody Essex Museum, purchased 110 prints that Curtis had made for exhibit. This collection was Curtis’ own exhibition of his photographs. The 14-by-17- inch prints were mounted in “salon style” art nouveau mounts and signed by Curtis. Each master print is unique and remains in pristine condition.

“They were Curtis’ most carefully selected prints of what was then his life’s work,” Worswick says. “And certainly these are some of the most glorious prints ever made in the history of the photographic medium. The fact that we have this man’s entire show of 1906 is one of the minor miracles of photography and museology.”

The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis: Portraits of Native America will showcase fine examples of Curtis’ best-known images: the vivid portraits of Indian leaders, warriors, women, and children. The exhibition includes a host of famous Curtis portraits, further distinguished by the exceptional quality of the prints. It will also include what Worswick calls “heroic re-creations” of outdoor encampments and dwellings; figure studies of Indians and their horses, many set against moody, glowering Western skies, with titles such as The Vanishing Tribes and Before the White Man Came; and environmental portraits such as an exquisitely structured rendering of Hopi women making piki bread.

“This is an exhibition about a photographer and his purposes,” says Worswick. “What were those purposes? And what have been the misconceptions of this work up until now? 2001 is the centenary year that marks the beginning of Curtis’ work on the Native American tribes. I think that’s an important milestone and it offers us a chance to reevaluate the importance of this artist and his work.”

Much debate has swirled around the authenticity of Curtis’ photography. He had tribal leaders wear anachronistic headdresses and costumes. He placed his subjects in highly idealized settings, often in dramatic pose. His re-created rituals and customs were at times inaccurate. He attempted the difficult feat of depicting a traditional Indian culture that was changing rapidly as a result of its contact with European Americans. Worswick, though, does not believe such facts diminish Curtis’ accomplishments.

The Native American peoples, Curtis told a newspaper reporter in 1911, “are not only willing but anxious to help. They have grasped the idea that this is to be a permanent memorial of their race, and it appeals to their imagination.”

“Was he using them—exploiting them?” Worswick asks. “My answer—and here’s where I depart from many of my colleagues—is that these photographs were a joint creation. The Indians were the willing participants in creating an image. Here were people who were living under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, yet were able to retain a profound sense of human dignity. Curtis was able to capture that dignity.”

Moreover, the so-called “Vanishing Red Man” theory that underpinned Curtis’ sense of mission proved illusory; most of the Native American cultures he encountered survived and changed. Today many Native Americans view Curtis’ work with ambivalence.

“The images mythologize our past and our predecessors into the Indian equivalent of a national myth,” says Tom Haukaas, a Rosebud Lakota whose essay will be among those in a catalogue accompanying the exhibition. “All nations need their myths. They help them construct their national ethos and character.

“But our peoples have adapted themselves and their cultures to fit present times just like Anglo-Americans. Anglo-Americans don’t dress and act like Puritans anymore, so why should Indians be any different? Unfortunately, there is this double standard that persists even today.”

Born in 1868 in Wisconsin, Curtis opened his first photography studio in 1891. His reputation as an artist grew after his photograph of “Princess Angeline,” daughter of Chief Seattle, was published around 1895. Soon after that he committed himself to visually documenting every Native American tribe west of the Mississippi River. From Puget Sound, he traveled to Alaska on the famed Harriman Expedition, to the homes of the Blackfoot Indians in Montana, and to Arizona and New Mexico to photograph the Hopi, Zunis, Acomas, and Pueblos of the Rio Grande Valley. He also photographed the Piegan, the Sioux, the Gros Ventre, the Cheyenne in the Rocky Mountains, and myriad other tribes.

“Edward Curtis began with the idea that idealized scenes of the American Indian would have great popular appeal, and he was quite right,” says Worswick. “Then, as he traveled and lectured, he became more and more involved with the Indians. For him it became like taking apart an onion. He discovered layer after layer of culture that he believed was being lost.”

Curtis’ photographs combined highly skilled artistry and technical capacity. They caught the attention of Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan, who later agreed to underwrite Curtis’ effort to publish The North American Indian. That effort resulted in perhaps the most expensive series of books ever produced, which today would cost $35 million to publish.

The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis: Portraits of Native America reveals the finest examples of Edward Curtis’s tremendously influential and important work as a photographer, but also the complex cultural environment that surrounds relationships between Native Americans and American society at large, both in the past and present.

For the exhibition catalog visit PEMshop.com.