It is often forgotten that Edward S. Curtis is arguably the most influential photographer of the American West and that Curtis’s work unquestionably ranks among that of the most important photographers of the 20th century.
Edward S. Curtis, b. 1868, d. 1952, was first and foremost an extremely gifted and sophisticated artist whose work is as much artistic as it is an important document of a people. Beginning in 1898 and continuing through 1928, Curtis dedicated his life to documenting the traditional lifeways of American Indian tribes living west of the Mississippi River, from Alaska to the Mexican border.
His monumental 20-volume /20-folio work, The North American Indian: Being a Series of Volumes Picturing and Describing the Indians of United States and Alaska, began publication in 1907 and was finally completed in 1930. It is an unparalleled achievement in the history of photography as well as anthropology.
Curtis was revolutionary in his portrayal of the Indian People. He was the first photographer to meet his American Indian subjects on a ground defined by mutual trust and respect--he was the first photographer to portray them as anything other than objects of curiosity involving them as active participants and contributing collaborators in the making of their own images. As such, Curtis created a stylistic visual legacy that can be seen in work ranging from Irving Penn to Annie Liebowitz and from John Ford to Sebastiao Salgado.
Curtis’s images stand alone in the world of photography. He was able to create, out of whole cloth, a lasting vision of the American Indian that never existed before. He produced images of the American Indian that not only record real daily activity, but also, remarkably, are able to convey a dignity, universal humanity and majesty that transcend all other work ever done on the subject.
The accomplishment of Edward S. Curtis is quite staggering and unmatched not just in photography but in his exploration of other media, including film, multi-media and sound recording. Only a few years after field motion picture cameras were available, Curtis began using them in 1904 and 1905 to document Navajo, Hopi and Cheyenne rituals.
Believing that motion pictures were becoming the medium to reach the masses – and that this first film might lead to other motion pictures based on Indian subjects – Curtis founded his own film company in Seattle and created a full-length feature film on Kwakiutl Indian life in 1914, In the Land of the Head-Hunters [War Canoes]. He lived and worked with the Kwakiutl for three years, and as Anne Makepeace's documentary Coming to Light reveals, his pioneering film is still cherished and honored by descendants of those who participated. It can be argued that Curtis, and not the commonly cited Robert Flaherty, is the father of documentary film.
Curtis also meshed hand-colored glass lantern slides, live music and live narration in a spectacular lecture series or ‘Musicale’ in 1911 that stunned and moved the nation’s critics and audiences alike. He used early sound recording devices to capture Native American language and music on 10,000 wax cylinders.
By acknowledging this additional, lesser known but equally vital work of Edward S. Curtis, we come not only to understand the greater breadth of his accomplishments in his astounding record of the North American Indian tribes, but see him also as a master innovator beyond his body of photographic work.