In recognition of Bill and Sally Wittliff’s generous donation of Edward S. Curtis’ monumental publication, The North American Indian, The Wittliff Collections have devoted this new gallery space to a rotating exhibition featuring Curtis’ photography.
In 1906 Curtis received a grant from financier J.P. Morgan to record, through photography and the written word, all Native American tribes who retained some degree of their “primitive” lifestyle. Native Americans were almost wholly confined to reservations by this time, and they were subjected to federal programs that forced their assimilation to Western ways. Curtis felt passionately that their cultures should be chronicled before they disappeared altogether.
The North American Indian is one of the most ambitious photographic projects ever undertaken. Published from 1907 to 1930, it documents more than 100 peoples’ languages, stories, and songs, along with extensive illustration by Curtis’ photography. Curtis took some 40,000 photographs during these years, selecting 2,234 photographs to be included in the publication. Twenty bound volumes are paired with portfolios, from which the framed prints in this exhibition were selected.
Initially, Curtis and his work enjoyed great success. By 1930, however, he had endured countless financial setbacks, his research had not received the scholarly recognition he craved, and Curtis himself was virtually forgotten. The North American Indian cost Curtis his marriage, his wealth, and his health.
A tremendously gifted artist, Curtis made many unforgettable images. Yet his work has also come under scrutiny, revealing that in some cases he used the same clothing or accessories for multiple tribes and he retouched many of his negatives to remove Western items like suspenders, parasols, and more. Curtis is regarded by some as a notorious “faker,” and he is criticized for romanticizing Native Americans at a time when their forced assimilation into Western culture denied their rights and dignity. Nevertheless, many Native Americans today defend Curtis’ images, often as they are the sole depictions of their forebears, but also because Curtis gave his subjects a dignity they likely did not experience in their daily lives.
Yet dismissing Curtis simply as a romantic or “faker” is not wholly appropriate. While instances of manipulation exist, about half of his published images depict recognizable elements of Western culture—from machine-made clothing to hats and eyeglasses. We should also consider the extensive research Curtis and his partners did, including making nearly 10,000 recordings of native speech and song. In reality, Curtis’ imagery and his writing would suggest that Curtis had a more complex attitude toward Native Americans and toward photographing them. We leave it to you to decide for yourself.