On the 150th anniversary of his birth, we explore the life's work of one of America's most important and controversial photographers, chronicler of the West and the North American Indian peoples.
2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952). Curtis made his living as a photographer in Seattle, in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Dissatisfied with his success as a society portrait artist, he gradually began to envision “a comprehensive and permanent record of all the important tribes . . . that still retains to a considerable degree their primitive customs and traditions.” His project, a multi-volume work entitled The North American Indian, took him over 30 years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Over that time he visited over 80 tribes, exposed approximately 40,000 negatives, and recorded more than 10,000 songs on wax cylinder. The New York Herald called it, “the most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James Bible.” The two thousand images published in these volumes, many of them iconic, helped form prevailing ideas worldwide about Native Americans.
From today’s standpoint, many observe that Curtis used his considerable artistry to create an Indian world largely of his imagination. He is known to have manipulated his subjects and altered his pictures to simulate a world where native tribes were untouched by Western culture. Yet the photos are of real people and remain a record, open to many interpretations, of American history and the history of photography, and serve as a visual connection to tribal ancestors.
This exhibition explores Curtis’ undertaking and offers reflections of modern tribal members, contrasting his idea of “a vanishing race” with the continuation of a living culture. You’ll see photogravures of Plateau, Northwest Coast, and Plains Tribes from The North American Indian, on loan from the Spokane Public Library. They will be complemented by unpublished Curtis photographs, objects from the MAC American Indian and History Collections, photographs by local contemporaries of Curtis from the MAC Archives. You’ll also be able to experience Native music recorded in the early 20th century.
This exhibition is presented in partnership with the Spokane Public Library.