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Recent Acquisition

The Vanishing Race
The “Vanishing Race,” depicting Navajo riders on horseback in Canyon de Chelley, was originally published as a photogravure in Volume 1 of the North American Indian. Digital surrogate from Curtis’ glass copy negative (Negative 984).

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Anthropological Archives (NAA) is pleased to announce a remarkable donation of original negatives produced by the photographer of iconic Native American images, Edward Sheriff Curtis. Curtis’ work was highly influential in shaping a sympathetic although highly romanticized vision of cultures believed to be “vanishing.” His images of Native Americans, master works of photographic artistry, have lent themselves also to ethnographic and art historical study, and both scholars and the public have come to consider Curtis as one of the foremost photographers of Native Americans.

Journal Page
Page from one of Curtis’ negatives log book. The first entry on the page is negative 984, titled “A disappearing race.” This photograph later became published and known as “The Vanishing Race.” This entry is in Curtis’ own handwriting.

The recent gift to the NAA by Curtis’ grandson James Graybill comprises over 500 original negatives, many of which were published in The North American Indian. This is an extraordinary addition to the Smithsonian’s important collections relating to Native Americans and provides an exciting opportunity for researchers to gain new insights into Curtis’ working methods.

The Graybill family has also donated a collection of Curtis’ correspondence, memoirs, manuscripts, and photographic prints relating to his work. Notable among this material are logbooks that include an extensive inventory of his photographic negatives, probably the most complete listing of Curtis’ early work in existence. The donation also includes an account of Curtis’ final fieldtrip to Alaska in 1927, written by his daughter Beth, who accompanied him. Among his correspondence are many letters from such notables as the Roosevelts, Gifford Pinchot, and Jacob Riis.

This important collection ties into and illuminates the NAA’s existing Curtis holdings, which include over 2000 original prints that Curtis deposited with the US copyright office, and his manuscript detailing an investigation he conducted into the Battle of Little Bighorn, during which Curtis interviewed Crow scouts that were in Custer’s employ at the time of the battle.

Who was Edward Curtis?

Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) was an American photographer best known for his monumental and now-controversial project, the twenty-volume publication The North American Indian. Here he sought to document in words and pictures the “vanishing race” of American Indians.

Atsina men
Atsina men gathered for Scalp Dance (Negative ESC5_18onn).

Born in Wisconsin in 1868, Curtis grew up on his family’s farm in Le Sueur County, Minnesota, from 1874 to 1887. In 1887, he and his father, Johnson Curtis, settled on a plot near what is now Port Orchard, Washington, and the rest of the family joined them the following year. When Johnson Curtis died within a month of the family’s arrival, the burden of providing for his mother and siblings fell to 20-year-old Edward, and Edward set out to do so through his photography. In 1891, Curtis moved to the booming city of Seattle and bought into a joint photo studio with Rasmus Rothi. Less than a year later, he formed “Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photoengravers” with Thomas Guptill; the enterprise quickly became a premier portrait studio for Seattle’s elite. In 1895, Curtis made his first “Indian photograph” depicting Princess Angeline, daughter of the chief for whom Seattle had been named. The following year he earned his first medal from the National Photographic Convention for his “genre studies.”

Program Cover of Curtis Picture Musicale
Program for the “Curtis Picture Musicale.” Curtis gave this presentation of his Indian photographs (with lantern slides), accompanied by an original musical score, to the public in the early 1910s.

In 1899, Curtis joined the Harriman Alaska Expedition as official photographer, a position which allowed him to learn from anthropologists C. Hart Merriam and George Bird Grinnell while documenting the landscapes and peoples of the Alaskan coast. This expedition and the resulting friendship with Grinnell helped to foster Curtis’ ultimate goal to “form a comprehensive and permanent record of all the important tribes of the United States and Alaska that still retain to a considerable degree their primitive customs and traditions” (General Introduction, The North American Indian). Curtis made several trips to reservations from 1900 to 1904, including a trip with Grinnell to Montana in 1900 and multiple trips to the Southwest, including the Hopi Reservation. He also hired Adolph Muhr, former assistant to Omaha photographer Frank A. Rinehart, to manage the Curtis studio in his absence, a decision which would prove more and more fruitful as Curtis spent less and less time in Seattle.

Curtis and daughter in kayak
Edward Curtis with his daughter Beth in a kayak in Alaska, 1927 (Negative AK72onn).

In 1906, Curtis struck a deal with financier J. P. Morgan, whereby Morgan would support a company – The North American Indian, Inc. – with $15,000 for five years, by which time the project was expected to have ended. Systematic fieldwork for the publication began in earnest that summer season, with Curtis accompanied by a team of ethnological researchers and American Indian assistants. Arguably the most important member of Curtis’ field team was William Myers, a former newspaperman who collected much of the ethnological data and completed most of the writing for the project. The first volume, covering Navajo and Apache peoples, was published at the end of 1907, but already Morgan’s funding was incapable of meeting Curtis’ needs. Despite heaping praise from society’s elite, Curtis spent much of his time struggling to find people and institutions willing to subscribe to the expensive set of volumes. After the initial five years, only eight of the proposed twenty volumes had been completed. Fieldwork and publication continued with the support of J. P. Morgan, but Curtis' home life suffered because of his prolonged absences.

Curtis self-portrait
Edward S. Curtis, 1868-1952. Self-portrait.

In 1919, Curtis’ wife Clara was awarded a divorce settlement which included the entire Curtis studio in Seattle. Exhausted and bankrupt, Edward Curtis moved with his daughter Beth Magnuson to Los Angeles, where they operated a new Curtis Studio and continued work on the volumes; volume 12 was published in 1922. The constant financial strain forced Myers to leave the North American Indian team after volume 18 (fieldwork in 1926) and Curtis made his last trip to photograph and gather data for volume 20 in 1927. After the final volumes were published in 1930, Curtis almost completely faded from public notice until his work was "rediscovered" and popularized in the 1970s. Curtis’ “salvage ethnology,” as scholar Mick Gidley describes it, was mildly controversial even during his life and has become ever more so as his legacy deepens. In his quest to photograph pre-colonial Indian life through a twentieth-century lens, he often manipulated and constructed history as much as he recorded it: he staged reenactments, added props, and removed evidence of twentieth-century influences on “primitive” life. Curtis’ work continues to shape popular conceptions of American Indians and so, while problematic, his legacy--his vision of American Indian life--continues to be relevant.

Curtis at the Smithsonian

SOON TO COME--Comprehensive Access to Curtis’ Archives

Makah girl negative
Original nitrate negative for portrait of Makah girl (Negative ESC11_1onn).

The NAA, in collaboration with the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), and with funding from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, is currently working to bring together Curtis materials in both archives. These unique collections include original negatives and prints at the NAA and photogravure plates, proofs, and platinum prints at NMAI. These collections reflect different stages in the journey of Curtis’ photographs from shutter click to publication and, once integrated, can provide a more complete narrative of Curtis’ North American Indian project and comprehensive access to his entire work.

Additionally, during the course of work on their Curtis collections, NAA and NMAI staff have compiled extensive information regarding the whereabouts of Curtis’ archival materials at other repositories, both within and outside of the Smithsonian. The NAA site will host this useful information and provide links to other relevant sites as well.

This site will soon host comprehensive access points to Curtis’ archival legacy.

  • Detailed guides to the Curtis holdings at the NAA including the collection of negatives and papers (Accession 2010-28), the copyright prints (Photo Lot 59), and Curtis’ manuscript regarding the Battle of Little Bighorn (Accession 2000-18)
  • Digital surrogates of all of the negatives
  • Detailed guides to the Curtis holdings at NMAI including the photogravure plates and proofs and the Mary Harriman Rumsey photograph collection relating to the Harriman Alaska Expedition
  • Information about Curtis collections at other Smithsonian Institution locations including the Cullman Library in the National Museum of Natural History, as well as the National Portrait Gallery
  • Information about Curtis collections at repositories throughout the United States

What’s next? Future Curtis projects at the NAA and NMAI

The NAA and NMAI plan next to seek funding for building a more robust online portal for access to Curtis resources at the Smithsonian, as well as for the digitization of Curtis’ papers and photogravure plates.

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