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Edward Curtis Safeguarding History

Edward Curtis Safeguarding History

LiveAuctonTalk.com: By Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers. 

"I want to make them (American Indians) live forever. It's such a big dream I can't see it all," said photographer Edward Curtis.

“The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other.”  
— Edward Curtis

The prevailing view in the 19th century was Native Americans were either savages or sufferers. By 1900, the tribes owned less than 2 percent of the land they once possessed and entire languages disappeared.   

"The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other," Curtis said. "Consequently the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once, or the opportunity will be lost for all time."

That was his vision. That's what Curtis devoted much of his life and photography to.  He was fueled by the urgency of realizing his dream. 

He started in 1889. The U.S. government had already pushed many of the tribes onto reservations. Their children were shipped off to boarding schools, not allowed to speak their languages or practice their religions.

Most of his 40,000 exposures were captured with a mahogany, brass and leather instrument called the Premo. No fancy gadgets or filters here, just a camera, tripod, focusing cloth and film. 

Despite the persecution, the faces of the Natives pictured in Curtis photos often appear confident and noble. This was a race refusing to vanish, as Curtis feared. Despite their circumstances.

Curtis was so skilled at photography his photos are seamless, transparent. It's like the viewer steps inside the world of the Natives pictured. He insisted the Indians he photographed be dressed like Indians. The backgrounds had to speak of their life or lands. 

Daughter Florence said as she watched Curtis photograph the Natives their armor of hostility seemed to dissolve before her eyes. They were looking at a man who understood and cared about their plight.

That's not how it started. At first Curtis didn't understand the Natives and they didn't understand him.  They shot at him, crowded in front of the camera. One Native threw handfuls of dirt at the lens, another almost rode over him with a horse.

Curtis was persistent. He befriended the children and dogs and asserted himself when necessary.  He also listened and learned about their world from their point of view.    

"They instinctively know whether you like them--or if you're patronizing them," he said. "They knew I liked them and was trying to do something for them."   

They understood these photos were a permanent memorial to their race. Word spread from tribe to tribe and the tribes didn't want to be left out.

"While primarily a photographer, I do not see or think photographically; hence the story of Indian life will not be told in microscopic detail, but rather will be presented as a broad and luminous picture," he said.   

His evocative and haunting photos provide an extraordinary view into the lives of the Indigenous North Americans.

On May 6, Skinner Auctioneers featured a section of Curtis photos in its American Indian & Ethnographic Art auction. Here are some current values.


Photogravure; "In Black Canyon-Apsaroke," copyright 1905; 16 3/4 inches by 13 1/4 inches; $1,845.

Photogravure; "Sia Buffalo Mask"; copyright 1925; 16 1/2 inches by 12 1/4 inches; $3,998.

Orotone; "Canyon del Muerto" original frame; original label; 10 inches by 8 inches; $6,150.

Orotone; "Canyon de Chelly" original frame; 13 1/2 inches by10 1/2 inches; $7,380.   


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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