It’s amazing what unexpected places you can find an individual with a surprising sense of purpose. A few months ago, I posted about a woman who recently made history (and her life was made into a movie) through her passionate efforts to help her floundering students become Freedom Writers.
Last month, I happened upon another such individual. His passion was unique. It was photography. Yet when studying his life, no one could deny that Edward Curtis was a man with a mission. His life’s purpose took a while to formulate and even longer to implement – but once he had been envisioned with the idea, nothing could stop him from making it happen.
At the turn of the century leading into the 1900s, a time when the Native Americans were at best misunderstood, and at worst routinely rounded up and killed or sent to reservations (a scant percentage the size of the places they had called home for thousands of years), Edward Curtis saw America’s native people through a different lens.
He foresaw a disappearing way of life and was seized with the vision to capture their lifestyle through photography and other recording methods. This vision was to become Edward Curtis’ magnum opus, his most enduring and impressive work.
Curtis’ experience with Indians began early. One particular incident was not a positive one; it created an indelible impression upon his young mind and perhaps was part of the reason he later determined to capture portraits of them. Six years before Curtis was born, a number of Sioux were convicted and killed in a mass hanging. As a child, Edward Curtis saw a photograph of this execution in a magazine. He stated, “All through life I have carried a vivid picture of that great scaffold with thirty-nine Indians hanging at the end of a rope” (Egan 17).
Some Americans were likely horrified by the photo of the largest mass execution in American history (Egan 16), but it seemed to do more for Curtis, breeding something deep within his heart. At the very least, he knew the Native American’s way of life was quickly vanishing. If someone did not act quickly, records, memories, and entire belief systems would be forever lost beneath the transitory layers of history.
Curtis built his first camera when he was 12, and became a photographer’s apprentice at the age of 17 . His first photograph of a Native American was of “Princess Angeline” the last surviving daughter of Duwamish Chief Sealth [Seattle] – after whom the city of Seattle, Washington, is named. Curtis had moved to Seattle as an assistant photographer and soon became arguably the most popular photographer in the city. Edward Curtis paid the elderly Duwamish woman a dollar for a studio sitting. The photos he took seemed to capture not only the essence that single woman, but of the sorrowful and passing spirit of Native Americans – whose existence was facing annihilation and culture hung in a precarious balance.
An idea began forming in Curtis’ mind, which gained momentum after a few more trips in which he saw Indian communities rapidly dwindling. Once the initiative took hold of him, it refused to let go. Edward Curtis wanted to create a complete and detailed history of the Native American peoples.
He began his quest, spending weeks at a time living among Native Americans – the Apache, the Dine, the Hope, the Navajo – seeking to not only take photos of the people but also learn the well-kept secrets of their religion, the beliefs regarding their origin and existence. Curtis took lengthy journeys at the expense of business and family engagements, so overcome with his sense of purpose.
By 1904, Curtis was actively seeking sponsorships from any possible or probable person or thriving company he could get in touch with, including President Roosevelt and Smithsonian Institute (Egan 86, 90). Although many people knew of Curtis’ work and praised his unique photography, no one came forward with the offer to help support the expenses of such a project. In 1906, Curtis sought the financial backing of JP Morgan, seeking the ability to create “a complete publication, showing pictures and including text of every phase of Indian life of all tribes yet in a primitive condition, taking up the type, male and female, child and adult, their home structure, their environment, their handicraft, games, ceremonies, etc. … going fully into their history, life and manners, ceremony, legends and mythology…” (Egan 108). When the titan at first balked during their meeting at the prospect of sponsoring such a vast undertaking, Curtis offered his trump card: he would receive no payment; the funding would go solely toward the undertaking. In fact, Curtis was willing to ensure the project with his life. He finally obtained the sponsorship he needed, although he had been bleeding his personal funds into it from the time his big idea dawned.
The project took longer than the five years that Edward Curtis assumed. In fact, he later stated that he “devoted thirty-three years to gathering text material and pictures for the twenty volumes … as a contribution; without salary, direct or indirect financial returns” (Egan 308).
During that time, he “took over 40,000 images and recorded rare ethnographic information from over eighty American Indian tribal groups.” He died at the age of 84 of a heart attack. The months and years leading up to his death saw a man whose finances dwindled to the point that he was meagerly supported by his daughter.
His memories, vast and colorful, blended together in his mind and he could no longer make sense of them; he died alone and virtually friendless. Yet Curtis’ work survived him in a way that enabled his legacy to blend with the story of many Native American peoples … and endure beyond their fleeting days on earth. In addition to the over 40,000 photographs he took towards his volume series – titled simply “The North American Indian” – he “recorded 10,000 songs, wrote down vocabularies and pronunciation guides for 75 languages, and transcribed an incalculable number of myths, rituals and religious stories from oral histories” (Egan 322).
As with many visionaries and purpose-driven individuals, Edward Curtis’ work was largely overlooked and forgotten during his time. Monetarily, he earned nothing in his effort to make available the most comprehensive recording of America’s original history. What’s more, his vision (bordering on obsession) cost him his marriage, an incalculable amount of family memories, and a variety of friendships and businesses opportunities.
In the years since his passing, though, his thirty-three-year project grew in recognition and stature. Today, his name is well-known among photographers and Native Americans alike. Curtis “found his calling in the faces of a continent’s forgotten people, and in so doing, he not only saw history, but made it” (Egan 325). Such was the legacy of a man true to his mission to the very end.
Egan, Timothy. Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.
Horse Capture, George. “Edward Curtis: Shadow Catcher.” PBS. PBS, 23 Apr. 2001. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.