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Early 20th Century Portraits Preserve the Heritage of Native Americans

In what he perceived as a race against time, due to the American expansion and the intervention of the federal government, photographer and ethnologist Edward S. Curtis spent more than 30 years documenting Native Americans and their traditions. In 1906, with the sponsorship of J.P. Morgan, Curtis undertook the production of what was set to be a series of 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs of Native Americans. Originally, five years was designated to the project, but its ambitious scale pushed Curtis well beyond the deadline. Under the original terms of the sponsorship, Morgan paid out $75,000 over five years in exchange for 25 volumes and 500 original prints. This was enough for Curtis to purchase his initial equipment to make the arduous voyages to each tribe, but money quickly grew scarce.

For more than three decades, Curtis was on the move, living among different tribes. During this time he was able to photograph well-known Native Americans, such as Geronimo, Red Cloud, Medicine Crow, and Chief Joseph. Interested in more than just photography, Curtis wished to capture a full view of Native American culture. While visiting more than 80 tribes, he created 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American language and music, certainly an important component for preserving the tribes’ legacy.

To Curtis’ dismay, The North American Indian was not the success he had envisioned—partially due to the onset of WWI, as well as diminishing interest in Native American culture. Less than half of the projected 500 sets were printed and scholars were skeptical of Curtis’ observation skills. It’s estimated that today, production of the volumes would cost more than $35 million dollars.

While there remains controversy over Curtis’ choice to strategically eliminate traces of contemporary life from his later photographs, Laurie Lawlor, author of Shadow Catcher: The Life and Work of Edward S. Curtis, see it differently. ”When judged by the standards of his time, Curtis was far ahead of his contemporaries in sensitivity, tolerance and openness to Native American cultures and ways of thinking. He sought to observe and understand by going directly into the field.”

via [Vintage Everyday, Smithsonian Magazine]

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