Edward Sheriff Curtis was born on the 16th of February 1868, near Whitewater, Wisconsin. He was an American photographer and ethnologist. His work was focused on the American West and on Native American people. In 1874, Curtis’s family moved to Minnesota. Edward Curtis’s first camera was built by him, when he was in sixth grade (year six).

In 1885, when Curtis was 17, he became an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota. Two years later, his family moved to Seattle, Washington, where Edward Curtis bought a new camera and became partners with Rasmus Rothi in a photographic studio. After six months, he left and formed a new partnership with Thomas Guptill to make a new studio: Photographers and Photoengravers. 

In 1892, Edward Curtis married Clara J. Philips and they had four children: Harold, Elizabeth, Florence and Katherine. Clara and Curtis divorced in 1919.

In 1895, Curtis photographed Princess Angeline, also know as Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. It was his first portrait of a Native American. Three years later, Curtis’s photos were chosen for an exhibition that was sponsored by the National photographic Society. These pictures were two photos of Princess Angeline called: The Mussel Gatherer and The Clam Digger. He also photographed Mt. Rainer during the same year.

Edward Curtis was appointed the official photographer of the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899. He was invited by George Bird Grinnell (who he had met briefly while photographing Mt. Rainer) to join an expedition to photograph people of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Montana in 1900.

In 1906, J.P Morgan provided Curtis with $75,000 to produce a series on Native Americans and the project had to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photos. On this project, Edward Curtis worked with a former journalist called William E. Myers. For assistance with logistics and fieldwork he hired Bill Philips. And finally, an anthropologist called Frederick Webb Hodge had researched Native American people and edited the entire series. 222 complete sets were published, the first one in 1907.

Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinders recording of Native American language and music. He took over 40,000 photos of members of over 80 tribes and he wrote biographical sketches of tribal leaders. This project was exhibited at a festival in France in 1973. In 1912, Edward Curtis created a feature film about Native American life, called In the Land of the Head Hunters. It was the first film that had a cast composed entirely of Native Americans.

In 1922, Curtis moved to L.A and opened a new studio, and he worked as an assistant cameraman for Cecil.B DeMille. A year later, he worked as a cameraman in The Ten Commandments. In 1924, Edward Curtis sold the rights to his ethnographic motion picture In the Land of the Head-Hunters. Three years later, Curtis was arrested as he had failed to pay alimony for seven years, however, the charges were dropped.

In 1928, Edward Curtis sold the rights to his project to J.P Morgan Jr. and two years later, the volume of The North American Indian was published, 280 sets were sold. In 1935, the Morgan Estate sold the right to The North American Indian to Charles E. Lauriat Company.

Edward S. Curtis died on the 19th October at the age of 84 of an heart attack in L.A.


All the pictures in this page are by Edward Curtis. All rights reserved to the author.

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