Edward Curtis was born near Whitewater, Wisconsin. Curtis' father, Rev. Johnson Asahel Curtis (1840—1887), was a minister and an American Civil War veteran. Rev. Curtis was born in Ohio. Rev. Curtis' father was born in Canada, and his mother in Vermont. Edward's mother, Ellen Sheriff (1844—1912), was born in Pennsylvania; and both her parents were born in England. Curtis' siblings were Raphael Curtis (1862-c1885), who also was called Ray Curtis; Eva Curtis (1870-?); and Asahel Curtis (1875—1941)., but he is most famous for a report done by glory.
Around 1874 the family moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota. Curtis dropped out of school in the sixth grade. He soon built his own camera. In 1880 the family was living in Cordova Township, Minnesota, where Johnson Curtis was working as a retail grocer.
In 1885 at the age of seventeen Edward became an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1887 the family moved to Seattle, Washington, where Edward purchased a new camera and became a partner in an existing photographic studio with Rasmus Rothi. Edward paid $150 for his 50 percent share in the studio. After about six months, Curtis left Rothi and formed a new partnership with Thomas Guptill. The new studio was called Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photoengravers.
In 1892 Edward married Clara J. Phillips (1874—1932), who was born in Pennsylvania. Her parents were from Canada. Together they had four children: Harold Curtis (1893-?); Elizabeth M. (Beth) Curtis (1896—1973), who married Manford E. Magnuson (1895—1993); Florence Curtis (1899—1987) who married Henry Graybill (1893-?); and Katherine (Billy) Curtis (1909-?).
In 1896 the entire family moved to a new house in Seattle. The household then included Edward's mother, Ellen Sheriff; Edward's sister, Eva Curtis; Edward's brother, Asahel Curtis; Clara's sisters, Susie and Nellie Phillips; and Nellie's son, William.
In 1895 Curtis met and photographed Princess Angeline (c1800-1896) aka Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle. This was to be his first portrait of a Native American. In 1898 while photographing Mt. Rainier, Curtis came upon a small group of scientists. One of them was George Bird Grinnell, an expert on Native Americans. Both Grinnell and Curtis were invited on the famous Harriman Alaska Expedition in 1899. Grinnell became interested in Curtis' photography and invited him to join an expedition to photograph the Blackfeet Indians in Montana in the year 1900.
In 1906 J.P. Morgan offered Curtis $75,000 to produce a series on the North American Indian. It was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Morgan was to receive 25 sets and 500 original prints as his method of repayment. 222 complete sets were eventually published. Curtis' goal was not just to photograph, but to document, as much American Indian (Native American) traditional life as possible before that way of life disappeared. He wrote in the introduction to his first volume in 1907: "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." Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian language and music. He took over 40,000 photographic images from 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, and his material, in most cases, is the only recorded history.
In 1910 the family was living in Seattle and on October 16, 1916, Clara filed for divorce. In 1919 she was granted the divorce and received the Curtis' photographic studio and all of his original camera negatives as her part of the settlement. Edward went with his daughter, Beth, to the studio and destroyed all of his original glass negatives, rather than have them become the property of his ex-wife, Clara. Clara went on to manage the Curtis studio with her sister, Nellie M. Phillips (1880-?), who was married to Martin Lucus (1880-?). In 1920 Beth Curtis and her sister Florence Curtis were living in a boarding house in Seattle. Clara was living in Charleston, Kitsap County, Washington with her sister Nellie and her daughter Katherine Curtis.
Dr. Charles Goddard Weld purchased 110 prints that Curtis had made for his 1905-1906 exhibit and donated them to the Peabody Essex Museum, where they remain. The 14" by 17" prints are each unique and remain in pristine condition. Clark Worswick, curator of photography for the museum, describes them as:
"...Curtis' most carefully selected prints of what was then his life’s work...certainly these are some of the most glorious prints ever made in the history of the photographic medium. The fact that we have this man’s entire show of 1906 is one of the minor miracles of photography and museology."
has been praised as a gifted photographer but also criticized by professional ethnologists for manipulating his images. Curtis' photographs have been charged with misrepresenting Native American people and cultures by portraying them in the popular notions and stereotypes of the times. Although the early twentieth century was a difficult time for most Native communities in America, not all natives were doomed to becoming a "vanishing race." At a time when natives' rights were being denied and their treaties were unrecognized by the federal government, many natives were successfully adapting to western society. By reinforcing the native identity as the noble savage and a tragic vanishing race, some believe Curtis detracted attention from the true plight of American natives at the time when he was witnessing their squalid conditions on reservations first-hand and their attempt to find their place in Western culture and adapt to their changing world.
In many of his images Curtis removed parasols, suspenders, wagons, and other traces of Western and material culture from his pictures. In his photogravure In a Piegan Lodge, published in The North American Indian, Curtis retouched the image to remove a clock between the two men seated on the ground.
He also is known to have paid natives to pose in staged scenes, wear historically inaccurate dress and costumes, dance and partake in simulated ceremonies. In Curtis' picture Oglala War-Party, the image shows 10 Oglala men wearing feather headdresses, on horseback riding down hill. The photo caption reads, "a group of Sioux warriors as they appeared in the days of inter tribal warfare, carefully making their way down a hillside in the vicinity of the enemy's camp." In truth headdresses would have only been worn during special occasions and, in some tribes, only by the chief of the tribe. The photograph was taken in 1907 when natives had been relegated onto reservations and warring between tribes had ended. Curtis paid natives to pose as warriors at a time when they lived with little dignity, rights, and freedoms. It is therefore suggested that he altered and manipulated his pictures to create an ethnographic simulation of Native tribes untouched by Western society.
One of the more balanced reviews of The North American Indian comes from Mick Gidley, Emeritus Professor of American Literature, at Leeds University, in England, who has written a number of works related to the life of Edward S. Curtis:"The North American Indian-extensively produced and issued in a severely limited edition-could not prove popular. But in recent years anthropologists and others, even when they have censured what they have assumed were Curtis' methodological assumptions or quarrelled with the text's conclusions, have begun to appreciate the value of the project's achievement: exhibitions have been mounted, anthologies of pictures have been published, and The North American Indian has increasingly been cited in the researches of others... The North American Indian is not monolithic or merely a monument. It is alive, it speaks, if with several voices, and among those perhaps mingled voices are those of otherwise silent or muted Indian individuals.”
Of the full Curtis opus N. Scott Momaday says: “Taken as a whole, the work of Edward S. Curtis is a singular achievement. Never before have we seen the Indians of North America so close to the origins of their humanity...Curtis’ photographs comprehend indispensable images of every human being at every time in every place”
Don Gulbrandsen, who wrote Edward Sheriff Curtis: Visions of the First Americans, puts it this way in his introductory essay on Curtis’ life: “The faces stare out at you, images seemingly from an ancient time and from a place far, far awayYet as you gaze at the faces the humanity becomes apparent, lives filled with dignity but also sadness and loss, representatives of a world that has all but disappeared from our planet.”
In Shadow Catcher: The Life and Work of Edward S. Curtis, Laurie Lawlor reveals that “many Native Americans Curtis photographed called him Shadow Catcher. But the images he captured were far more powerful than mere shadows. The men, women, and children in The North American Indian seem as alive to us today as they did when Curtis took their pictures in the early part of the twentieth century. Curtis respected the Indians he encountered and was willing to learn about their culture, religion and way of life. In return the Indians respected and trusted him.When judged by the standards of his time, Curtis was far ahead of his contemporaries in sensitivity, tolerance, and openness to Native American cultures and ways of thinking.”
Theodore Roosevelt, who was one of Curtis' contemporaries and one of his most strident supporters, wrote the following comments in the foreword to Volume I of The North American Indian:"In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because it is truthful. because of his extraordinary success in making and using his opportunities, has been able to do what no other man ever has done; what, as far as we can see, no other man could do. Mr. Curtis in publishing this book is rendering a real and great service; a service not only to our own people, but to the world of scholarship everywhere."
Image:Canyon de Chelly, Navajo.jpg|Canyon de Chelly — Navajo. Seven riders on horseback and dog trek against background of canyon cliffs, 1904Image:The Scout - Apache.jpg|Apache Scout, c.1900sImage:Edward_S._Curtis_Collection_People_027.jpg|Apache, Morning bath, c. 1907Image:A smoky day at the Sugar Bowl--Hupa.jpg|A smoky day at the Sugar Bowl--Hupa, c. 1923. Hupa man with spear, standing on rock midstream, in background, fog partially obscures trees on mountainsides.Image:Navajo medicine man.jpg|Navajo medicine man - Nesjaja Hatali, c. 1907. Description by Edward S. Curtis: A well-known Navaho medicine-man. While in the Cañon de Chelly the writer witnessed a very interesting four days' ceremony given by the Wind Doctor. Nesjaja Hatali was also assistant medicine-man in two nine days' ceremonies studied - one in Cañon del Muerto and the other in this portfolio (No. 39) is reproduced from one made and used by this priest-doctor in the Mountain Chant.Image:Whitemanrunshim.jpg|White Man Runs Him, c.1908. Crow scout serving with George Armstrong Custer’s 1876 expeditions against the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne that culminated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.Image:Nez Perce warrior on horse.jpg|The old-time warrior--Nez Percé, c.1910. Nez Percé man, wearing loin cloth and moccasins, on horseback.Image:Crow s heart, Mandan.JPG|Crow's Heart, Mandan, c.1908Image:Mandan lodge.jpg|Mandan lodge, North Dakota, c. 1908.Image:Food caches, Hooper Bay, Alaska.jpg|Food caches, Hooper Bay, Alaska, c.1929Image:Mandan man missouri river.JPG|Mandan man overlooking the Missouri River, c.1908Image:Fishing with gaff hook.png|Fishing with a Gaff-hook--Paviotso or Paiute, c.1924Image:Mandan girls gathering berries.JPG|Mandan girls gathering berries, c. 1908Image:Mandan hunter with buffalo skull.JPG|Mandan hunter with buffalo skull, c. 1909Image:Zuni-girl-with-jar.png|Zuni Girl with Jar, c. 1903. Head-and-shoulders portrait of Zuni girl with pottery jar on her head.Image:Navajo flocks.jpg|Navajo Flocks, c.1904. Description by Edward S. Curtis: The Navaho might as well be called the "Keepers of Flocks". Their sheep are of the greatest importance to their existence, and in the care and management of their flocks they exhibit a thrift not to be found in the average tribe.Image:Navajo sandpainting.jpg|Navajo Sandpainting, c.1907. Description by Edward S. Curtis: One of the four elaborate dry-paintings or sand altars employed in the rites of the Mountain Chant, a Navaho medicine ceremony of nine days' duration.
Image:Navajo weaver.jpg|Navajo Weaver, c. 1907. Description by Edward S. Curtis: The Navaho-land blanket looms are in evidence everywhere. In the winter months they are set up in the hogans, but during the summer they are erected outdoors under an improvised shelter, or, as in this case, beneath a tree. The simplicity of the loom and its product are here clearly shown, pictured in the early morning light under a large cottonwood.Image:Edward S. Curtis Geronimo Apache cp01002v.jpg|Geronimo - Apache (1905), Description by Edward S. Curtis: This portrait of the historical old Apache was made in March, 1905. According to Geronimo's calculation he was at the time seventy-six years of age, thus making the year of his birth 1829. The picture was taken at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the day before the inauguration of President Roosevelt, Geronimo being one of the warriors who took part in the inaugural parade at Washington.Image:NavahoMedicineManCurtis.jpg|Navaho medicine-man, c. 1904, (with 1913 signature)Image:Edward S. Curtis Collection People 035.jpg|Boys in kayak, Nunivak, 1930Image:Edward S. Curtis Collection People 084.jpg|Cheyenne maiden,1930.Image:Edward_S._Curtis_Collection_People_001.jpg|Hopi mother, 1922Image:Edward_S._Curtis_Collection_People_043.jpg|Hopi girl, 1922
1868 Curtis is born near Whitewater, Wisconsin and grows up near Cordova, Minnesota.
1880 1880 US Census with Curtis family living in Minnesota
1887 Curtis moves to Washington territory with his father Johnson.
1891 Curtis buys into a photo studio with Rothi, and later starts a new photographic studio in Seattle with Guptill.
1895 Curtis meets and photographs Princess Angeline (c1800-1896) aka Kickisomlo, the daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle.
1896 Curtis and Guptill win the bronze medal at the National Photographers Convention in Chautauqua, New York. Argus magazine declares them the leading photographers in Puget Sound. Beth, the Curtis' 2nd child and 1st daughter is born. The Curtis family moves to a larger house where they are joined by Edward's mother Ellen, sister Eva, brother Asahel, Clara's sister Susie, her cousin Nellie Philips and Nellie's son William. The entire family works at one time or another in the Curtis studio.
1898 On Mount Rainier, Curtis meets a group of scientists, including anthropologist George Bird Grinnell and C. Hart Merriam.
1899 Curtis is appointed official photographer for E. H. Harriman's Alaska Expedition.
1900 Curtis accompanies George Bird Grinnell to the Piegan Reservation in northwest Montana to photograph the Sun Dance ceremony.
1903 Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé visits the Curtis studio and has his portrait taken. Curtis hires Adolph Muhr (?-1912) to run the studio while he is away working on photography and trying to get financing in New York and Washington, D.C..
1904 President Theodore Roosevelt invites Curtis to photograph his children after seeing Curtis' winning photograph in "The Prettiest Children in America" contest published in Ladies' Home Journal.
1904 Louisa Satterlee, daughter-in-law of financier J.P. Morgan, purchases Curtis photographs at an exhibit in New York City.
1906 Curtis secures funds from J.P. Morgan for the field work to produce a twenty volume illustrated text American Indians, to be completed in five years.
1907 Volume 1 of The North American Indian is published, with a foreword by Theodore Roosevelt.
1908 Volume 2 published
1911 Curtis launches The Indian Picture Opera a lecture and slide show, to publicize his work, and solicit subscriptions for The North American Indian. Original Music was composed by Henry Gilbert, and 22 piece orchestra accompanied the production. The Indian Picture Opera performed through the end of 1912.
1912 Volume 8 published
1913 J.P. Morgan dies, but his son decides to continue funding The North American Indian until finished.
1913 Volume 9 published.
1914 Curtis releases In the Land of the Head-Hunters, a motion picture depicting Native Americans of the Northwest Coast.
1915 Volume 10 and 11 published. No additional volumes published for the next six years.
1916 Clara Curtis files for divorce.
1916 Curtis works on the Orotone photographic process where glass plate positive images are made by printing a reversed image on glass and then backing it with a mixture of powdered gold pigment and banana oil.
1919 Divorce granted.
1920 Clara living in Charleston, Kitsap County, Washington with her married sister.
1920 Curtis and daughter Beth move from Seattle to Los Angeles. Curtis finances fieldwork by working in his new studio and in Hollywood as a still photographer and assistant movie camera operator for major studios.
1922 Volume 12 published.
1924 Curtis sells rights to his film to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
1926 Volume 16 published.
1927 Curtis' Alaska trip culminates three decades of fieldwork. Beth invites Curtis' youngest daughter Katherine to spend the Christmas holiday with the family at Florence's home in Medford, Oregon. This is the first time Curtis has ever been together with all of his children and the first time in thirteen years that Katherine has seen her father.
1930 Volume 20 published. Clara and Katherine are still living in Seattle and operating his old studio.
1932 Death of his ex-wife Clara, daughter Katherine moves to California.
1935 Materials remaining from The North American Indian project, including copper photogravure plates, are sold to the Charles E. Lauriat Company, a rare book dealer in Boston. Curtis tries to earn money by gold-mining and farming.
1947 Moves to Whittier, California into the home of his daughter, Beth and her husband Manford Magnuson.
1952 Curtis dies in Los Angeles in the home of his daughter Beth, his obituary appears in the New York Times and he is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood Hills, California.
New York Times; June 16, 1912; "Briarcliff Lodge, New York, June 15, 1912. Edward S. Curtis of Seattle, Washington, is the guest of Mrs. J. Stuart White at the Briarcliff Lodge. John J. Sinclair of New York is at the lodge for a short stay previous to sailing for Europe.
Barbara A. Davis, Edward S. Curtis: The Life and Times of a Shadow Catcher
Edward Sheriff Curtis, Book of his photos published 2008 by Phaidon Press
Edward S. Curtis, "The North American Indian" published 2005 by Aperture Foundation