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Edward S. Curtis

Edward Sheriff Curtis (February 16, 1868October 19, 1952) was a photographer of the American West and of Native American peoples.

Early life

Edward Curtis was born near Whitewater, Wisconsin. Curtis' father, Rev. Johnson Asahel Curtis (1840-1887), was a minister and a American Civil War veteran. Rev. Curtis was born in Ohio. Rev. Curtis' father was born in Canada, and his mother in Vermont. Edward's mother, Ellen Sheriff (1844-1912), was born in Pennsylvania; and both her parents were born in England. Curtis' siblings were Raphael Curtis (1862-c1885), who also was called Ray Curtis; Eva Curtis (1870-?); and Asahel Curtis (1875-1941).

Around 1874 the family moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota, and Curtis built his own camera. In 1880 the family was living in Cordova Township, Minnesota, where Johnson Curtis was working as a retail grocer.

Early career

In 1885 at the age of seventeen Edward became an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1887 the family moved to Seattle, Washington, where Edward purchased a new camera and became a partner in an existing photographic studio with Rasmus Rothi. Edward paid $150 for his 50 percent share in the studio. After about six months, Curtis left Rothi and formed a new partnership with Thomas Guptill. The new studio was called Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photoengravers.


In 1892 Edward married Clara J. Phillips (1874-1932), who was born in Pennsylvania. Her parents were from Canada. Together they had four children: Harold Curtis (1893-?); Elizabeth M. (Beth) Curtis (1896-1973), who married Manford E. Magnuson (1895-1993); Florence Curtis (1899-1987) who married Henry Graybill (1893-?); and Katherine (Billy) Curtis (1909-?).

In 1896 the entire family moved to a new house in Seattle. The household then included Edward's mother, Ellen Sheriff; Edward's sister, Eva Curtis; Edward's brother, Asahel Curtis; Clara's sisters, Susie and Nellie Phillips; and Nellie's son, William.

Middle career

In 1895 Curtis met and photographed Princess Angeline (c1800-1896) aka Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. This was to be his first portrait of a Native American. In 1898 while photographing Mt. Rainier, Curtis came upon a small group of scientists. One of them was George Bird Grinnell, an expert on Native Americans. Grinnell became interested in Curtis' photography and invited him to join an expedition to photograph the Blackfeet Indians in Montana in the year 1900.

The North American Indian

In 1906 J.P. Morgan offered Curtis $75,000 to produce a series on the North American Indian. It was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Morgan was to receive 25 sets and 500 original prints as his method of repayment. Curtis' goal was not just to photograph, but to document, as much American Indian (Native American) traditional life as possible before that way of life disappeared. He wrote in the introduction to his first volume in 1907: "The information that is to be gathered ... respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost." Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian language and music. He took over 40,000 photographic images from over 80 tribes. He recorded tribal lore and history, and he described traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs. He wrote biographical sketches of tribal leaders, and his material, in most cases, is the only recorded history.


In 1910 the family was living in Seattle and on October 16, 1916, Clara filed for divorce. In 1919 she was granted the divorce and received the Curtis' photographic studio and all of his original camera negatives as her part of the settlement. Edward went with his daughter, Beth, to the studio and destroyed all of his original glass negatives, rather than have them become the property of his ex-wife, Clara. Clara went on to manage the Curtis studio with her sister, Nellie M. Phillips (1880-?), who was married to Martin Lucus (1880-?). In 1920 Beth Curtis and her sister Florence Curtis were living in a boarding house in Seattle. Clara was living in Charleston, Kitsap County, Washington with her sister Nellie and her daughter Katherine Curtis.


Around 1922 Curtis moved to Los Angeles with his daughter Beth, and opened a new photo studio. To earn money he worked as an assistant cameraman for Cecil B. DeMille and was an uncredited assistant cameraman in the 1923 filming of The Ten Commandments. On October 16, 1924 Curtis sold the rights to his ethnographic motion picture In the Land of the Head-Hunters to the American Museum of Natural History. He was paid $1,500 for the master print and the original camera negative. It had cost him over $20,000 to film.


In 1927 after returning from Alaska to Seattle with his daughter Beth, he was arrested for failure to pay alimony over the preceding 7 years. The total owed was $4,500, but the charges were dropped. For Christmas of 1927, the family was reunited at daughter Florence's home in Medford, Oregon. This was the first time since the divorce that Curtis was with all of his children at the same time, and it had been thirteen years since he had seen Katherine. In 1928, desperate for cash, Edward sold the rights to his project to J.P Morgan's son. In 1930 he published the concluding volume of The North American Indian. In total about 280 sets were sold of his now completed opus magnum. In 1930 his ex-wife, Clara, was still living in Seattle operating the photo studio with their daughter Katherine. His other daughter, Florence Curtis, was still living in Medford, Oregon with her husband Henry Graybill. In 1932 his ex wife, Clara, drowned while rowing in Puget Sound, and his daughter, Katherine moved to California to be closer to her father and her sister, Beth.

Loss of rights to The North American Indian

In 1935 the rights and remaining unpublished material were sold by the Morgan estate to the Charles E. Lauriat Company in Boston for $1,000 plus a percentage of any future royalties. This included 19 complete bound sets of The North American Indian, thousands of individual paper prints, the copper printing plates, the unbound printed pages, and the original glass-plate negatives. Lauriat bound the remaining loose printed pages and sold them with the completed sets. The remaining material remained untouched in the Lauriat basement in Boston until they were rediscovered in 1972.

Death and burial

On October 19, 1952, at the age of 84, Curtis died of a heart attack in Whittier, California in the home of his daughter, Beth. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills, California. His terse obituary appeared in The New York Times on October 20, 1952:
Edward S. Curtis, internationally known authority on the history of the North American Indian, died today at the home of a daughter, Mrs. Bess Magnuson. His age was 84. Mr. Curtis devoted his life to compiling Indian history. His research was done under the patronage of the late financier, J. Pierpont Morgan. The foreward [sic] for the monumental set of Curtis books was written by President Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer.

Curtis archive at the Library of Congress

The Prints and Photographs Division Curtis collection consists of more than 2,400 silver-gelatin, first generation photographic prints — some of which are sepia-toned — made from Curtis's original glass negatives. Most of the photographic prints are 5" x 7" although nearly 100 are 11" x 14" and larger; many include the Curtis file or negative number within the image at the lower left-hand corner.

Acquired by the Library of Congress through copyright deposit from about 1900 through 1930, the dates on the images reflect date of registration, not when the photograph was actually taken. About two-thirds (1,608) of these images were not published in the North American Indian volumes and therefore offer a different and unique glimpse into Curtis's work with indigenous cultures. The original glass plate negatives which had been stored and nearly forgotten in the basement of New York's Pierpont Morgan Library were dispersed during World War II. Many others were destroyed and some were sold as junk.

Charles Lauriat archive

Around 1970, Karl Kernberger of Santa Fe, New Mexico went to Boston to search for Curtis' original copper plates and photogravures at the Charles E. Lauriat rare bookstore. He discovered almost 285,000 original photogravures as well as all the original copper plates. With Jack Loeffler and David Padwa, they jointly purchased all of the surviving Curtis material that was owned by Charles Emelius Lauriat (1874-1937). The collection was later purchased by another group of investors led by Mark Zaplin of Santa Fe. The Zaplin Group owned the plates until 1982, when they sold them to a California group led by Kenneth Zerbe, the current owner of the plates as of 2005.

Peabody Essex Museum

Dr. Charles Goddard Weld purchased 110 prints that Curtis had made for his 1905-1906 exhibit and donated them to the Peabody Essex Museum, where they remain. The 14" by 17" prints are each unique and remain in pristine condition. Clark Worswick, curator of photography for the museum, describes them as:
"...Curtis' most carefully selected prints of what was then his life’s work...certainly these are some of the most glorious prints ever made in the history of the photographic medium. The fact that we have this man’s entire show of 1906 is one of the minor miracles of photography and museology."


Curtis has been praised as a gifted photographer but also criticized for manipulating his images by professional ethnologists. Curtis' photographs have been charged with misrepresenting Native American people and cultures by portraying them in the popular notions and stereotypes of the times. Although the early twentieth century was difficult time for most Native communities in America, not all natives were doomed to becoming a "vanishing race." At a time when natives' rights were being denied and their treaties were unrecognized by the federal government, many natives were successfully adapting to western society. By reinforcing the native identity as the noble savage and a tragic vanishing race, some believe Curtis detracted attention from the true plight of American natives at the time when he was witnessing their squalid conditions on reservations first-hand and their attempt to find their place in Western culture and adapt to their changing world.

In many of his images Curtis removed parasols, suspenders, wagons, and other traces of Western and material culture from his pictures. In his photogravure In a Piegan Lodge, published in The North American Indian, Curtis retouched the image to remove a clock between the two men seated on the ground.

He also is known to have paid natives to pose in staged scenes, wear historically inaccurate dress and costumes, dance and partake in simulated ceremonies. In Curtis' picture Oglala War-Party, the image shows 10 Oglala men wearing feather headdresses, on horseback riding down hill. The photo caption reads, "a group of Sioux warriors as they appeared in the days of inter tribal warfare, carefully making their way down a hillside in the vicinity of the enemy's camp." In truth headdresses would have only been worn during special occasions and, in some tribes, only by the chief of the tribe. The photograph was taken in 1907 when natives had been relegated onto reservations and warring between tribes had ended. Curtis paid natives to pose as warriors at a time when they lived with little dignity, rights, and freedoms. It is therefore suggested that he altered and manipulated his pictures to create an ethnographic simulation of Native tribes untouched by Western society.

See also


  • 1868 Curtis is born near Whitewater, Wisconsin and grows up near Cordova, Minnesota.
  • 1880 1880 US Census with 1880 census Curtis Sheriff.gif living in Minnesota
  • 1887 Curtis moves to Washington territory with his father Johnson.
  • 1891 Curtis buys into a photo studio with Rothi, and later starts a new photographic studio in Seattle with Guptill.
  • 1895 Curtis meets and photographs Princess Angeline (c1800-1896) aka Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle.
  • 1896 Curtis and Guptill win the bronze medal at the National Photographers Convention in Chautauqua, New York. Argus magazine declares them the leading photographers in Puget Sound. Beth, the Curtis' 2nd child and 1st daughter is born. The Curtis family moves to a larger house where they are joined by Edward's mother Ellen, sister Eva, brother Asahel, Clara's sister Susie, her cousin Nellie Philips and Nellie's son William. The entire family works at one time or another in the Curtis studio.
  • 1898 On Mount Rainier, Curtis meets a group of scientists, including anthropologist George Bird Grinnell and C. Hart Merriam.
  • 1899 Curtis is appointed official photographer for E. H. Harriman's Alaska Expedition.
  • 1900 Curtis accompanies George Bird Grinnell to the Piegan Reservation in northwest Montana to photograph the Sun Dance ceremony.
  • 1903 Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé visits the Curtis studio and has his portrait taken. Curtis hires Adolph Muhr (?-1912) to run the studio while he is away working on photography and trying to get financing in New York and Washington, D.C..
  • 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt invites Curtis to photograph his children after seeing Curtis' winning photograph in "The Prettiest Children in America" contest published in Ladies' Home Journal.
  • 1904 Louisa Satterlee, daughter-in-law of financier J.P. Morgan, purchases Curtis photographs at an exhibit in New York City.
  • 1906 Curtis secures funds from J.P. Morgan for the field work to produce a twenty volume illustrated text American Indians, to be completed in five years.
  • 1907 Volume 1 of The North American Indian is published, with a foreword by Theodore Roosevelt.
  • 1908 Volume 2 published
  • 1911 Curtis launches The Indian Picture Opera a lecture and slide show, to publicize his work, and solicit subscriptions for The North American Indian. Original Music was composed by Henry Gilbert, and 22 piece orchestra accompanied the production. The Indian Picture Opera performed through the end of 1912.
  • 1912 Volume 8 published
  • 1913 J.P. Morgan dies, but his son decides to continue funding The North American Indian until finished.
  • 1913 Volume 9 published.
  • 1914 Curtis releases In the Land of the Head-Hunters, a motion picture depicting Native Americans of the Northwest Coast.
  • 1915 Volume 10 and 11 published. No additional volumes published for the next six years.
  • 1916 Clara Curtis files for divorce.
  • 1916 Curtis works on the Orotone photographic process where glass plate positive images are made by printing a reversed image on glass and then backing it with a mixture of powdered gold pigment and banana oil.
  • 1919 Divorce granted.
  • 1920 Clara living in Charleston, Kitsap County, Washington with her married sister.
  • 1920 Curtis and daughter Beth move from Seattle to Los Angeles. Curtis finances fieldwork by working in his new studio and in Hollywood as a still photographer and assistant movie camera operator for major studios.
  • 1922 Volume 12 published.
  • 1924 Curtis sells rights to his film to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
  • 1926 Volume 16 published.
  • 1927 Curtis' Alaska trip culminates three decades of fieldwork. Beth invites Curtis' youngest daughter Katherine to spend the Christmas holiday with the family at Florence's home in Medford, Oregon. This is the first time Curtis has ever been together with all of his children and the first time in thirteen years that Katherine has seen her father.
  • 1930 Volume 20 published. Clara and Katherine are still living in Seattle and operating his old studio.
  • 1932 Death of his ex-wife Clara, daughter Katherine moves to California.
  • 1935 Materials remaining from The North American Indian project, including copper photogravure plates, are sold to the Charles E. Lauriat Company, a rare book dealer in Boston. Curtis tries to earn money by gold-mining and farming.
  • 1947 Moves to Whittier, California into the home of his daughter, Beth and her husband Manford Magnuson.
  • 1952 Curtis dies in Los Angeles in the home of his daughter Beth, his obituary appears in the New York Times and he is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood Hills, California.

Further reading



  • Barbara A. Davis, Edward S. Curtis: The Life and Times of a Shadow Catcher
  • Edward Sheriff Curtis, Book of his photos published 2008 by Phaidon Press


External links

Image gallery

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