The Shadow Catcher – Edward Sheriff Curtis

A pioneer of visual anthropology through sensitive portraits
of Native Americans early last century

Scroll down

For Edward S. Curtis, the Indian as a nation was "the vanishing race" whose ancient manners, customs, and traditions should be recorded before they disappeared. To this end, Curtis dedicated his life to documenting the North American Indian. The result of his life's work was The North American Indian: twenty volumes of text accompanied by 1500 photogravure prints, 20 complete portfolios totaling 722 plates and a special de luxe edition. The New York Herald referred to this magnum opus as "the most gigantic undertaking in the making of books since the King James edition of the Bible."

His quest began in the midwest where he learned the fundamentals of photography. In the 1880s, Curtis moved to Washington Territory, setting up a small studio photography business with Henry Guptil. In this rugged country, Curtis became a skilled mountaineer and expedition leader as well as an accomplished photographer of Mount Rainier. Here also he was exposed to the oppressed Native American people of the area who were living in severe poverty. So concerned was he that modern civilization had lost touch with what had once been harmonious unity between Man and Nature, he dedicated himself to recording for future generations the full spectrum of Native American life, with an emphasis on the Indians' peaceful arts and culture.

His photographic work was both documentation and idealized reconstruction. Curtis often posed his subjects so that at times his pictures appear to be reenactments. He is known, in fact, to have had his subjects wear the obsolete dress of their forefathers for his camera. And his models were paid—with silver dollars, sides of beef and autographed photographs. Princess Angelina, the daughter of Chief Sealth (whose name was later Anglicized into Seattle) posed for Curtis for a dollar a picture. The photographs of Princess Angelina digging clams won several awards and were exhibited internationally.

Although Curtis was an amateur and lacked the scholarly training of an anthropologist, he often was able to obtain information that eluded others. Curtis was clearly a charismatic man, with tremendous patience and sensitivity to and empathy with the Native American people whose lives he recorded. With the help of an interpreter, Curtis held interviews with elders, shamans, warriors, young men and women who related their tribal lore to him. At a time when the Indians' distrust of foreigners was an obstacle which had to be overcome, Curtis' presence would be tolerated or ignored during religious events, so that he was able to observe and record. Curtis even claimed to have actually participated in the Hopi Snake Society's rituals, and to have passed through the arduous endurance tests required for tribal acceptance. Through persistence and respect, Curtis won the confidence of the Native Americans and eventually was allowed to photograph sacred rituals and private ceremonies, using either actual participants or hired models.

Curtis' photographs won him the admiration and friendship of Theodore Roosevelt, who in turn introduced Curtis to the magnate and philanthropist J.P. Morgan. Morgan—and after his death in 1913, the Morgan estate—financed more than half of the enormous undertaking of The North American Indian. The twenty volumes (each of which took one to two years to produce) covered more than eighty Indian tribes west of the Mississippi; Indians of the Unites States, British Columbia and Alaska who still retained, in Curtis's view, their primitive customs and beliefs. His thirty years in the field began in the searing heat of the southwestern desert and ended in a howling gale in the Arctic Ocean. Curtis intended the limited edition of the 20 volume set to be 500. However, only 272 sets were printed and bound. Because of its size and cost, this landmark publication, which was begun in 1907 and finally completed in 1930, was doomed to obscurity during the prevailing economic depression.

The Curtis Images

Curtis produced his Indian pictures in two groups: photogravuresand original fine art photographs. Photogravure was the process Curtis used to produce The North American Indian. From the original negative, a glass positive was made and then the image was transferred chemically to a copper plate from which hand-pulled ink prints were made. Curtis printed his photogravures on the most elegant and archival handmade papers of the time: Holland Van Gelder, Japon Vellum and Tissue. The only other comparable project of this kind was Alfred Stieglitz' publication Camera Work, which also used photogravure reproductions of photographs.

The original photographs are the rarer and more valuable of the two and are referred to as Master Prints. The Master Prints include platinum prints, silver prints, gum bichromate prints and orotones, or goldtones. Curtis made the goldtone so much his own, that he affixed his name to the process and dubbed it the Curt-tone!

Old Acoma well

E.S. Curtis. "At the Old Well of Acoma"
Goldtone/orotone 1904

Curtis wrote of the process:
"The ordinary photographic print, however good, lacks depth and transparency, or more strictly speaking, translucency. We all know how beautiful are the stones and pebbles in the limpid brook of the forest where the water absorbs the blue of the sky and the green of the foliage, yet when we take the same iridescent pebbles from the water and dry them they are dull and lifeless, so it is with the orthodox photographic print, but in the Curt-tones all the translucency is retained and they are as full of life and sparkle as an opal."

Today, Edward Curtis is recognized as a pioneer in visual anthropology and as a sensitive artist of photography whose poignant portraits of American Indians are among the most remarkable and recognizable ever made.

By Pamela Michaelis, founder of The Collector's Guide and former host of “Gallery News” radio show on KHFM 95.5 remote, classical radio in Albuquerque.

Photographs courtesy of The Rainbow Man remote Santa Fe, NM

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 7

Related Pages

Artists of the Santa Fe Trail article
Collecting Photography of the Southwest article

Glossary of Photography Terms article
New Mexico — Photographer's Eden article
Photography in New Mexico article

Collector’s Resources

Santa Fe

Gallery of the North American Indian pic 114 Don Gaspar | 505-984-2222
The Rainbow Man | 505-982-8706
Zaplin Lampert Gallery | 505.982.6100


Mission Gallery | 575-758-2861


©2014 | F + W Media
URL: • Contact The Collector's Guide