Edward S. Curtis

Dates1868 - 1952
RolesPhotographer, Author
BornWhitewater, Wisconsin, United States
DiedLos Angeles, California, United States

A poor reverend's son growing up in Minnesota farm country, the teenage Edward Curtis built his first camera from scratch. The Curtis family moved to the Washington territory, and around 1892 the newly married Curtis bought his first photographic studio in Seattle for 150 borrowed dollars. It quickly became the place to be photographed. He later settled in Los Angeles, where he operated photographic studios at various times on La Cienega Boulevard and in the Biltmore Hotel. As a friend of Hollywood producer Cecil B. DeMille, Curtis was commissioned to make film stills of some of DeMille's epics, including The Ten Commandments.

Curtis is best known, however, for his exhaustive photo-documentation of American Indians. Over a thirty-year period he produced The North American Indian, a twenty-volume survey of more than one hundred tribes with supplementary photogravure portfolios. At least two hundred sets were sold, each priced at the then-astronomical sum of three thousand to forty-five hundred dollars. Curtis intended to preserve the vanishing native cultures, but he actually constructed the portraits out of nostalgia for cultures long past; rather than being historically accurate, he often used wrongly attributed cultural artifacts and costumes as props. Nevertheless, Curtis succeeded in creating a powerful record of faces and locations that transcended the standard ethnographic catalogue.

In 1914 he also made a feature film, In the Land of the Head Hunters, based on the lives of the Kwakiutl, a Pacific Northwest Coast Native American tribe.

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