The North American Indian , Portfolio VIII

Edward S. Curtis

(White Water, Wisconsin, 1868 - 1952, Los Angeles)

1907 - 1930


22 in. x 18 in. (55.88 cm x 45.72 cm)

Gift of Nancy and Robert F. Meyerson

1992.44 a - kk

More Information

These images are from Curtis's massive publication “documenting” the lives of Native Americans. In reality, Curtis posed his subjects and often gave them historical clothing or props to use. Sébah, Emerson and Curtis blended two nineteenth-century traditions: romanticism and ethnographic photography. Seeking to give expression to cultures that were almost extinct or were totally foreign to their viewers, the photographers created staged scenes that ultimately reflected a stereotypical rather than a realistic view.


Edward S. Curtis The Fisherman—Wishham, 1909, from The North American Indian, Portfolio VIII Collectionof the Akron Art Museum "The longer I work at this collection of pictures the more certain I feel of their great value."1 When Edward S. Curtis wrote these words in 1907 he had just started a wildly ambitious project to document Native American life in the United States and Alaska. His aim was to introduce more recently arrived Americans to a much older native culture through beautifully realized photographs and reliable texts. During the next twenty-three years, Curtis traveled widely and photographed avidly, eventually producing twenty volumes of The North American Indian. He wished to create, in his own words, "a broad and luminous picture" of the customs, traditions, and environments of what at the time was referred to as "the vanishing race."2 Ironically, by 1950 Curtis's grand endeavor had itself more or less vanished from view. It is only within the past twenty-five or so years that his efforts to bridge the gap between art and documentation and between past and present have been recognized and reappraised. Curtis came of age and started in the photography business in Seattle, Washington, during a troubled period in American history: great individual fortunes were being made, corruption was rampant, and periodic financial panic was a fact of life. His desire to evoke a vanished culture was eminently suited to the nation's state of mind as turn-of-the-twentieth-century Americans looked to the past as a more spiritually pure time. The culture of Native American tribespeople, who by then had been moved onto reservations, was also changing. Choosing not to picture the actual acculturation taking place, Curtis adopted a more romantic outlook, which as might be expected appealed to a number of powerful figures in business and government—notably Junius P. Morgan, Edward Harriman, and Theodore Roosevelt. Morgan in particular provided financial help with the enormous expenses involved in producing the elegant volumes.3 The Fisherman —Wishham is one of many photographs taken by Curtis along the banks of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. Depicting a lone figure fishing for salmon with net and pole in the Columbia River, it suggests the concordance between Native Americans and the natural world that traditionally provided their sustenance. Like many of Curtis's images, it was made with a soft-focus lens and from a vantage point that ignored all that might be ugly or disturbing in the environment. While this approach may be ethnographically flawed, the Native American subjects appear beautiful and proud, just as Curtis wished them to be perceived.4 - Naomi Rosenblum, 2001 1. Edward S. Curtis to Edmond S. Meany, November 11, 1907. Quoted in Davis, 39. 2. Quoted in Graybill and Boesen, not paginated. The Vanishing Race is the title Curtis gave to one of the best-known images from The North American Indian. It depicts the shadowy forms of a group of mounted Navaho tribesmen seen from behind and illuminated by the last rays of the sun. 3. Published by Curtis himself, the twenty volumes contained 700 large and 1,500 smaller plates printed in gravure on two different papers: a Japanese vellum and a Dutch etching stock. Typesetting and printing were done by University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Morgan first promised $15,000 yearly for five years, which would cover travel, interpreters, and supplies; eventually the Morgan family spent some $400,000 on the publication. Ibid., 45, 75. 4. See Lyman for an exposition of the view that Curtis romanticized his subjects to a dishonest extent. Davis, Barbara A. Edward S. Curtis: The Life and Times of a Shadow Catcher. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1985. Gidley, Mick. Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Graybill, Florence Curtis, and Victor Boesen. Edward Sheriff Curtis: Visions of a Vanishing Race. New York: American Legacy, 1976. Lyman, Christopher. The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions. New York: Pantheon in association with Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982.

American Indian
Modern Art
Native American