The Artist


Born in 1868 in Wisconsin, Edward Sheriff Curtis opened his first photography studio in Seattle in 1891. When he was thirty-three years old he committed himself to photographing every Native American tribe west of the Mississippi River. “Edward Curtis thought idealized scenes of the American Indian would have great popular appeal, and he was right,” says Clark Worswick, consulting curator for the museum’s photographic collections. “Then, as he traveled and lectured, he became more involved with them. He discovered layers of culture that were being lost.” While not the only photographer of his time to portray Native Americans, Curtis’s effort was by far the most ambitious and successful. His images became America’s popular vision of its Native people.

The academic community, however, never accepted Curtis’s work. The photographer was vilified by ethnologists for taking considerable liberties in portraying his subjects—depicting tribal leaders in anachronistic headdresses and costumes, or in artificially idealized settings. Few realize that Curtis worked with his subjects to attempt to “re-create” the glories of Native American life untainted by cultural devastation and forced displacement. Curtis must therefore be judged not as an ethnologist but as an artist—one following the pictorialist movement of the late nineteenth century, mixing artistry and romantic vision with documentary fact. Curtis’s photographs reflect both his extraordinary talents as a photographer and his dedication to the people whose majesty he wanted to preserve on film.

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