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From 1907 to 1930, Edward Curtis (United States, 1868–1952) photographed and studied Native Americans for his monumental book project, The North American Indian. Funded by financier J.P. Morgan, the project represents one of the most significant and comprehensive efforts of the early 20th century to document Native Americans and Native American culture. Including more than 80 tribes, primarily from the American West and Pacific Northwest, Curtis’ 20-volume magnum opus combines narrative sections on Native American languages, traditions, and cultural practices with more than 2,000 photogravures, or images produced from a process in which photographic negatives are transferred and etched in to a metal plate. Although Curtis has been criticized for his romantic depiction of Native Americans and for perpetuating the stereotype of the “primitive Indian,” The North American Indian is notable for its impressive scope, enduring historical value, and artistry.
Largely self-taught, Curtis began his career as a portrait and landscape photographer in Seattle. After becoming commercially successful and nationally recognized for his photographs, he began working in a more ethnographic mode when a chance encounter with a group of anthropologists and scientists in the late 1890s led to his appointment as official photographer of a research expedition to Alaska. A practitioner of Pictorialism—a photographic style developed and popularized by Gertrude Käsebier, Edward Steichen, and Alfred Stieglitz with the aim
of elevating the status of photography by highlighting the picturesque qualities of the medium—Curtis applied this aesthetic to his ethnographic work. His photographs in The North American Indian are characterized by rich tonal variation, balanced compositions, and a soft, atmospheric focus. Typical of Curtis’ style is Joseph – Nez Perce (1903), which depicted the revered Nez Perce Chief, Joseph, known to his people as Hin- mah-too-yah-lat-kekt (1840–1904). Chief Joseph is outfitted in an elaborately decorated headdress and traditional Nez Perce accessories. While accurate, such adornment is not representative of his everyday dress, which illustrates Curtis’ romanticized approach in The North American Indian. Chief Joseph’s steady gaze, bypassing the viewer, evokes an image of a man in quiet contemplation. The sharp detail of his beaded necklace juxtaposed with the hazy background and indistinct feathers result in a highly textured and poetic photograph.
Of the 81 photogravures by Curtis in the PMA collection, approximately 25 will be installed in the William Dette Hamill Gallery this winter. The photographs, which are from the seventh and eighth volumes of The North American Indian, portray tribes from the Columbia River Basin, including the Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Cayuse, among others. The works highlight Curtis’ skill as a portraitist, the diversity of The North American Indian in both its objectives and content, and the beauty and artistry of the project.
Edward Curtis (United States, 1868-1952), Joseph—Nez Perce (detail), 1903, photogravure on tissue mounted on paper, 8 3/8 x 5 3/8 inches. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Julius Elowitch, 1974.274