EDWARD CURTIS. “Beyond the Frame”, 06.09–06.10

Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868 – 1952)

Edward S. Curtis was a significant and controversial figure in the history of US photography, the author of the monumental chronicle of Native American people – a multi-volume publication “The North American Indian”.

Curtis became interested in photography already in his childhood and in 1885 began working as an assistant photographer in Minnesota. Later, he moved to Seattle, where, together with Thomas Guptill founded a portrait photography studio. In 1895 Curtis photographed the daughter Chief Sealth of Seattle – Kickisomlo (about 1800-1896), better known as Princess Angeline. “I paid the princess a dollar for each picture I made,” Curtis recalled many years later. “This seemed to please her greatly, and she indicated that she preferred to spend her time having pictures taken to digging clams.”

In 1898, while photographing Mt. Rainier, Curtis came upon a small group of scientists with George Bird Grinnell among them, considered to be an expert on Native Americans by his peers. Grinnell grew interested in Curtis’ photography and invited him to join an expedition to photograph the Piegan tribe in Montana in 1900.

In 1906, the financier J.P. Morgan provided Curtis with 75,000 USD to produce a series on Native Americans. This work was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Morgan was supposed to receive 25 sets and 500 original pictures – but Curtis published 222 sets. The photographer’s goal, as he put it the preface to the first volume, was not just to photograph but also to document as much of Native American traditional life as possible before that way of life disappeared.

The Shadow Catcher as Curtis was called by his models took over 40,000 photographic images of members of 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 – his material, in most cases, becoming the only written recorded history. Curtis realized that he had little time. “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,” he wrote in the introduction to his first volume of «The North American Indian» published in 1907.

Most of the images Сurtis took were purchased by the US Library of Congress, the rest are kept by private collectors. The work done by the photographer is, of course, valuable, but the methods he was using in producing the images are often criticised. Some of them were staged in the studio with the Native Americans dressed up in traditional clothes and jewelry, others were later manipulated as Curtis wanted to remove from the shots all the modern attributes of his time. His images did not reflect problems the Native Americans were facing in that period: they were almost entirely moved to reservations, intertribal confrontation was almost over, but at the same time indigenous people still were virtually granted no rights or freedoms. Due to diseases, inadaptability and armed clashes, most tribes practically disappeared, and those who remained could not boast of a happy life. Curtis’ works formed false concepts about the Indians, whose culture was doomed to extinction.

“Curtis completely epitomizes our society’s myth of the Native American as some static, unchanging thing,” says Alexandra Harris, an editor at the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. “His photos are the vision of reality he wanted others to see, not what was actually real.”

06.09 — 06.10
“Ў” Gallery

12:00 – 20:00, daily


“Ў” Gallery, 19:00