Red Cloud by Edward Sheriff Curtis, 1822 (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
Edward S. Curtis (1868–1952) undertook the most ambitious photographic project in American history—to take photographs of the Native Americans of the American West before their traditional lifeways disappeared. Using dry glass plate technology, Curtis spent time among more than 80 tribes, took an estimated 40,000 photographs, recorded 8,000 to 10,000 Edison cylinder disks of song, speech, and story, and over a 30-year period published 20 stunning volumes of photographs and ethnography as The North American Indian.
One newspaper said it was the most ambitious publishing project since the King James Bible. Endorsed and advised by his friend President Theodore Roosevelt and funded in part by J.P. Morgan, Curtis sacrificed everything—wealth, family, his marriage, and his health—to complete the project. His images of “the vanishing Indian” (as he erroneously predicted) are among the finest and most iconic photographs ever taken of Native Americans and the landscapes on which they practiced their traditional rites.
In recent years Curtis has been accused of appropriating American Indian culture, manipulating and romanticizing his subjects, and transgressing the boundaries of the sacred. And yet, no one wishes he had not undertaken his Herculean project.
Humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson explores the world of Edward S. Curtis, with special emphasis on his friendship with Theodore Roosevelt, who intervened on several occasions to promote—but also influence—the work.
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