Edward Curtis called “Shadow Catcher” by Native nations

Time Before Now, October 1952 – It was a seminal year for changes in leadership.   Elizabeth II became queen in February, a year to the day after her father died at just 56.  Ike resigned as Supreme Allied Commander, becoming the country’s 34th president in 1953.  Kentucky Fried Chicken opened its first store in Salt Lake City and Ernest Hemingway published his final novel, “The Old Man and the Sea. (Left)  And IBM employee Norman Joseph Woodland is credited with inventing the ubiquitous product barcode.  It took  until 1974,  for the first scan – a pack of chewing gum in a grocery store in an Ohio supermarket. 

October 19, 1952

On this day arguably the greatest recorder of the Native American culture, Edward Curtis, (right) died at 84.   He almost missed his chance, coming of age in the 1880s just barely in time to capture the lives of America’s indigenous people.

Curtis took more than 40,000 photographs of 80 tribes and made more than 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of native language and music. In addition, his work contained in 222 volumes included tribal history, lore, ceremonies and lifestyle.  

Born in Wisconsin in 1868 the oldest son of a disabled Civil War veteran, Johnson Asahel Curtis, young Curtis  grew up in impoverished circumstance in La Seuer County, Minnesota.  

Curtis dropped out of school in the sixth grade and built his own camera at age 12.   Five years later in became an apprentice in a St. Paul, Minnesota photography studio.

 Two years later Johnson, hoping to improve his health, moved the Curtis family to Washington State and 19-year-old Edward went with them.  It was a fortuitous decision.   He bought himself a new camera and paid Seattle photographer, Rasmus Rothi, $150 for half interest in his studio. 

The pair may have known each other in Minnesota.  Rothi, a Norwegian immigrant had moved to Seattle not long before.   Census records indicate Rothi had operated a photo studio in St. Paul during the same period of the Curtis internship.  Old friends or not, he and Rothi parted company just six months later and Curtis went into business with a new partner, Thomas Guptill.

His first images of Native Americans were of Squeamish, chief Seattle’s daughter.  Destined to be iconic images, “The Clam Digger” (right) and “The Mussel Gatherer” appeared in an exhibition sponsored by the National Photographic Society and his “Homeward” Puget Sound photo captured the Gold Metal.

While photographing Mt. Rainier Curtis had a chance meeting with George Bird Grinnell, (left) founder of the first Audubon Society and an expert on Native American culture.  It led to his appointment as the  Official Photographer for the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition. 

A maritime survey of the coastline from Seattle to Siberia, the expedition was totally financed by railroad tycoon, Edward Harriman and involved nearly three dozen naturalists, biologists, botanists, geologists, writers and artists.

Photographic immortality came to Curtis by way of another millionaire, founder of General Electric and U.S. Steel, J. P. Morgan (right).   An ambitious art collector, he offered Curtis $75,000, more than $2 million today, to produce 1,500 images of “North American Indians.”   The funds were to be used for field work, editing and producing 20 volumes of material.

It may have seemed like a good deal to Curtis.  It was a much better deal for Morgan. however.  Curtis was to receive no salary.  Morgan was to receive 25 sets of the 20 volumes and 500 original prints.  In all, the project totaled 222 volumes.

It was a stunning gift to the nation and a disaster for the photographer’s personal life. The 24-year-old Curtis wed 18-year-old Clara Phillips in 1892.  The couple had met when Clara had served a devoted care-giver while Curtis recovered from a serious back injury sustained while working lumber yard.

Curtis never returned the favor,  mostly absent during the nearly three decades of marriage.  Leaving his wife for months at a time to cope alone with a huge extended Curtis family; Edward’s mother, sister, and brother along with Clara’s two sisters, a nephew and her own four children all under one roof and manage the family photo studio, as well.  By 1919, she’d had enough.

The couple’s divorce was a sensation.  Clara (right) was awarded the studio and all Curtis’s camera negatives.  In a rage, Curtis smashed more than 500 glass plate originals to make sure his ex-wife  did not profit from them.

Obviously never a savvy business man, Curtis partnered with pioneer film maker Cecil B. DeMille to produce “In the Land of the Head Hunters” for the Museum of Natural History, receiving $1,500 for a movie that cost $20,000 to make.  

Meanwhile, his battles with Clara continued.  Returning from field work in Alaska in 1927, he was arrested for failure to pay $4,500 in alimony and child support.  

Two years later, the stock market calamity of 1929 made it nearly impossible for Curtis to sell his work.  Financially ruined, he suffered what was termed in the day, a mental and physical breakdown.  Adding insult to injury J.P. Morgan’s company sold 19 sets of “The North American Indian” and thousands of original plates to the Boston firm of Charles Lauriat Books for $1,000 and the promise of future royalties.

Curtis attempted to write a memoir amid charges of “photographic fakery” for having staged a number of the tribal rituals and concealed details of contemporary life in his images. The era of cultural purity for Native Americans had, in fact, long passed and his supporters believed the work was not a deception but an honest attempt to preserve what had once been.  His memoir incomplete, he died of a heart attack in 1952 in Whittier, California at the age of 84.  He was buried in Glendale’s Forest Lawn. 

The Boston book company  eventually bound and sold the remaining volumes from the Morgan Company.  The original copper printing plates were found untouched in his basement two decades after his death. 

The entire 20 volumes of narrative text and breathtaking images are now online financed with by a National Leadership grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the Library of Congress. 

Northwestern University’s Digital Library Collection digitalized the Edward Curtis volumes which includes 5,000 scans of text and 2,226 scans of photographic plates and is compatible with most web browsers.  The digitization was a two-year project of the Univerity’s Library’s Preservation Department with the assistance of a number of other departments.  The site offers a helpful tutorial for users and cautions that “the images and descriptions reflect the prevailing Euro-American cultural perspective of Curtis’s time” and should be viewed in that context.  No images or text regarding rituals and ceremonial objects have been excluded or labeled as “sensitive,” but according to the website “were not intended for viewing by the uninitiated.” To find the collection go to curtis.library.northwestern.edu.  It can also be accessed through the Library of Congress website American Memory, Edward S. Curtis’s The North American Indian: Photographic Images at memory.loc.gov.

© Text Only – 2022 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain.