Edward S. Curtis collection
Scope and Contents
Curtis (1868-1952) took more than 40,000 photographs for his project to publish The North American Indian. There are two series: Portfolio plates, which contain 10 plates and Volume plates, which contain 112 plates. Both sizes of plates at the Center for Creative Photography have been selected from volumes 1, 2, 12, 16 and 17 of The North American Indian. Volume 1 treats the Apache, Jicarilla Apache, and Diné people; volume 2 treats the Akimel O'Otham, Tohono O'oodham, Qahatika, Mojave, Quechan, Xalychidom Piipaash, Havasupai, and Apache-Mojave; volume 12 deals exclusively with the Hopi; volume 16 treats the Tiwa and Keres people; and volume 17 deals with the Tewa and Zuni people.
The photogravure plates themselves were made by two engraving firms, both of them located in the Boston, Massachusetts area. John Andrew and Son of Cambridge made the plates for volumes 1 – 11, while Suffolk Engraving Company made them for volumes 12 – 20.
- Creation: circa 1903-1925
Language of Materials
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Edward Sherriff Curtis was born February 16, 1868 on a farm in rural Wisconsin. His father was a minister, farmer, and American Civil War veteran and they lived in poverty. Curtis left school in sixth grade and soon after built his own camera. He became an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1885, at the age of 17 and became well versed in photography. After moving to Seattle, Washington, he had a photography studio: Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photoengravers.
A pivotal moment for Curtis was when he photographed Princess Angeline, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle, in 1895, and it was his first portrait of a Native American. In 1898, three of Curtis’ images were exhibited by the National Photographic Society, which included two portraits of Princess Angeline, “The Mussel Gatherer” and “The Clam Digger” as well as a photograph of the Puget Sound, “Homeward,” which was awarded the exhibition’s grand prize.
By 1896, Curtis was receiving a lot of recognition as a studio photographer, but also from the photographic community and public for his American Indian photographs. By 1900, he was extremely celebrated and exhibited internationally, earning several awards. He traveled extensively spending many seasons with the American Indians around the United States, including the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest. In 1904, Curtis won a national portrait contest, which earned the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. He was invited to photograph Roosevelt’s children and they forged a close relationship. Roosevelt wrote a letter of recommendation on Curtis’ behalf, which was given to J.P. Morgan, who ultimately funded the first stages of The North American Indian project.
Curtis was extremely successful at creating a photo-ethnographic study with the limited edition book, The North American Indian. Over the thirty-year project, he created up to 50,000 negatives of 80 different Native communities, and produced 10,000 was cylinder recordings of Native languages and music – not just to photograph but document the traditional way of life in every aspect possible. The goal was to create 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs and in the end, a total of 222 complete sets were published (lower than his initial goal).
After The North American Indian project ended, Curtis worked with motion picture and created a silent feature film depicting the Native American life, known as In the Land of the Head Hunters. He sold the rights to this film in 1924 to the American Museum of Natural History.
Around 1922, Curtis moved to Los Angeles and opened a photography study with his daughter Beth. He worked as an assistant cameraman on various projects. Curtis struggled financially during this time, and was arrested in 1927 for failure to pay alimony to his ex-wife. In 1928, Curtis was desperate for income so he sold the rights to The North American Indian to J.P. Morgan. In 1935, the Morgan estate sold the rights to The North American Indian to the Charles E. Lauriat Company in Boston, which included 19 complete bound sets, thousands of prints, copper printing plates, unbound printed pages, and the original glass-plate negatives. The remaining material that was not sold off was found in 1972.
Curtis died from a heart attack on October 19, 1952 at the age of 84. He died in the Los Angeles home of his daughter Beth and was buried in Glendale, California.
Bibliography: Cardozo, Christopher. Edward S. Curtis Biography. Christopher Cardozo Fine Art. Retrieved from https://www.edwardcurtis.com/curtis-biography/
8 Linear Feet (17)
Metadata Rights Declarations
- License: This record is made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Creative Commons license.
122 steel-plated, copper photogravure printing plates used in the production of The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis (20 volumes plus portfolios. Volumes 1 – 5, The University Press, Cambridge, Mass.: Volumes 6 – 20, Plimpton Press, Norwood, Conn. 1907 – 1930). Ten of the plates (each approximately 12 x 18 in.) were used to produce the illustrations included in the portfolios that accompanied each of the twenty volumes of text, and 112 of the smaller steel-plated copper plates (each approximately 6 ½ x 9 in.) were used to illustrate the text volumes.
The Collection is arranged into the following series:
- Series 1: Portfolio Plates
- Series 2: Volume Plates
Processed in Processed in 2001 by Shaw Kinsley. Finding aid was updated by Alexis Peregoy in 2016. Finding aid was updated by Elias Larralde in 2022/23.
- Edward S. Curtis collection circa 1903-1925
- Finding aid created by CCP Archives Staff
- © 2017
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- Finding aid encoded in English