Edward Curtis was an American ethnologist and photographer in the 19th century. He is best known for The North American Indian, his mammoth collection of 1500 photographs of Native Americans across the American West.
Edward Curtis was born in 1868 in Whitewater, Wisconsin. In 1887, he started a photography apprenticeship in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The same year, Curtis married Clara Phillips and moved to Seattle, where he became a partner in a photography studio with Rasmus Rothi.
In 1898, Curtis met the anthropologist and Native American expert, George Bird Grinnell. They ran into each other as Curtis was photographing Mount Rainier, and the two soon partnered up for the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899. Curtis served as the official photographer for the expedition, where he photographed and researched glaciers and Eskimos with a team of 24 scientists.
Grinnell and Curtis teamed up again for the Blackfoot Confederacy Expedition of 1900, studying Piegan culture and viewing the Sun Dance custom of the Piegans. Curtis later exhibited his photographs in Seattle to popular acclaim, and his work was featured in magazines. His photographs caught the eye of President Theodore Roosevelt, who hired Curtis to cover his daughter’s wedding and commissioned a series of family portraits.
In 1906, Curtis began work on The North American Indian, with J.P. Morgan funding the project for $75,000. Some of Curtis’s famous subjects included Geronimo, Red Cloud, Medicine Crow and Chief Joseph. Throughout the 30 years he worked on The North American Indian, he documented 10,000 song, speech, and music recordings and produced twenty volumes with 1500 photographs.
The Native tribesmen called him Shadow Catcher, as he frequently worked with them, documenting them with a 14 x 17 inch camera and producing glass-plate negatives. J. P. Morgan’s death in 1913 slowed down the project; J.P. Morgan Jr. provided continued, if reduced funding, but the dwindling demand for his photographs would force Curtis to abandon the project eventually.
Popular interest in Native American documentation dropped significantly at the start of World War I. Curtis tried to renew it through a 1914 motion picture, In the Land of the Head Hunters; however, the film was a commercial failure. Curtis sold the rights to the film to the Morgan Company, and The American Museum of Natural History acquired the film in exchange for funding his fieldwork.
One of the main critiques of Curtis’s work was his tendency to use props and play-acting rather than active, objective documentation. His work also often perpetuated racist tropes of the “vanishing Indian,” the idea that Natives were anachronisms of a primitive culture and were vanishing in the wake of modernity. Curtis would make tribes reenact historical battles and ceremonies; however, he portrayed them as real-time documentations. He would actively remove modern objects, like clocks, from photographs. For In the Land of the Head-Hunters, the Kwakiutl men, from Vancouver Island, were made to shave their faces and wear wigs and nose rings to mimic the appearances of their forefathers.
Curtis continued to work in the film industry, working for Cecil B. DeMille and providing camerawork on The Ten Commandments. He would later return in the twenties to the Native tribes he photographed, but found their culture destroyed due to relocation and forced assimilation by the US government. Curtis died in California in 1952.
Curtis’s most prominent work is his massive project, The North American Indian. The project lasted 20 years and spanned 1500 photographs, both staged and non-staged, of the life and culture of 80 tribes. The twenty volumes of The North American Indian were published between 1907 and 1930. The work contains 700 large portfolio images and 7000 pages of historical documentation.
Curtis’s work is held in many public collections and has been exhibited at museums like the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Getty Museum, and The Morgan Library. The Morgan Library and the Seattle Art Museum held retrospective exhibitions of Curtis’s work during the seventies and eighties when his works began to regain the attention of the art world.
Curtis deployed multiple photography processes and media. Most of his photography prints for The North American Indian were photogravures. However, his works also featured other methods like gold tone prints, platinum prints, and gold tone paper prints. His gold tone paper prints are rarer and are usually dated to a single year between 1899 to 1900, when he used single-weight papers to implement goldtones.
The Value of Curtis’s Work
Although Curtis can arouse controversy in the modern art world, his works are still considered a massive effort of historical documentation and remain significant records of American history. Their continuing relevance in Native American history has expanded the market for Curtis’s work. His photographs are highly prized in the national and international art market.
Individual, original Curtis photographs can sell for tens of thousands of dollars and are in high demand from art collectors and historians. Curtis’s volumes of The North American Indian collection can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. His photogravures, especially goldtones, are the most valuable.
Sell Curtis Photographs
If you have any works by Edward Curtis, get in touch with our experts at Revere Auctions. If you would like to sell your Curtis photographs, you can auction them at our location in St. Paul, Minnesota. We also offer our services online.
You can contact us anytime for a free auction estimate if you want to sell Curtis’s work. We have a very simple process. After you send us the photos of the work, our experts will take a look, analyze, and provide you an estimate of the amount the artwork is likely to reach at auction.
If you need an appraisal for Curtis’s work, we provide a certified appraisal report that can be used for estate taxes, donations, and insurance coverage. Our appraisals are compliant with Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice and are accepted by insurance companies, charity agencies, and the IRS.