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Edward S. Curtis photogravure plates and proofs for The North American Indian, 1899-1927, circa 1980

Curtis, Edward S. 1868-1952
1899-1927, circa 1980
Collection descriptions
Pictorial works
Physical Description
96 prints : photogravure proofs
184 photogravure printing plates
Restrictions & Rights
Access is by appointment only, Monday - Friday, 9:30 am - 4:30 pm. Please contact the archives to make an appointment
Local number
A'aninin (Gros Ventre)
A:shiwi (Zuni)
Akimel O'odham
Apsáalooke (Crow/Absaroke)
Chukchansi Yokuts
Denesoline (Chipewyan)
Diné (Navajo)
Hopi Pueblo
Jemez Pueblo
K'apovi (Santa Clara Pueblo)
Kainai Blackfoot (Kainah/Blood)
Kewa (Santo Domingo Pueblo)
Kumeyaay (Diegueno)
Kupangaxwichem (Kupa/Cupeno)
Kutzadika'a (Mono Paiute)
Laguna Pueblo
Mewuk (Miwok)
Nimi'ipuu (Nez Perce)
Niuam (Comanche)
Northern Paiute
Numakiki (Mandan)
Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo)
Piipaash (Maricopa)
Pikuni (Piegan)
Quechan (Yuma/Cuchan)
Sahnish (Arikara)
San Ildefonso Pueblo
Santa Ysabel (Santa Isabela) Diegueno
Sicangu Lakota (Brule Sioux)
Tewa Pueblos
Tohono O'Odham
Tsitsistas/Suhtai (Cheyenne)
Tsuu T'ina (Sarcee)
Walla Walla
Washoe (Washo)
NMAI also holds Edward Curtis photographs documenting the Harriman Expedition (1899) as well as platinum prints and photogravures of the images published in The North American Indian.
The Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives holds Edward Curtis prints submitted for copyright (Photo Lot 59) as well as many of his original negatives, photographs, and papers.
Steve Kern donated photogravure plates to the Center for Creative Photography and the Seattle Art Museum at the same time that he donated this set to MAI.
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.
Born in Wisconsin in 1868, Edward 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."
In 1899, Edward 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's 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.
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's 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's home life suffered because of his prolonged absences.
In 1919, Curtis's 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's "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's 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.
The photogravure plates and proofs were used to print The North American Indian (NAI) and then passed from the North American Indian, Inc., to the Morgan Company. In about 1930, the Morgan Company sold the copper plates (along with complete sets of the volumes) to Charles Lauriat Books of Boston, Massachusetts, which later auctioned the full collection in 1972. After some changing of hands, the collection was purchased by a group of five (including some original purchasers from Charles Lauriat Books). The five buyers established the company Classic Gravure (CG, circa 1976) with the intention of publishing abridged versions of The North American Indian. Plates from original NAI volumes 1, 2, 12, 16, and 17 were re-struck (and proofs apparently changed out) for images published in a Southwest volume, the first and only of these to successfully make it to publication. In addition, many of the plates were re-struck as one-offs in a deal between CG and American Express. In 1981, CG contacted the Museum of American Indian (MAI) to propose a cooperative effort, though shortly thereafter Steve Kern and Kenneth Zerbe purchased CG and renamed it The Curtis Collection. In 1983, a final deal was reached between Curtis Collection and MAI, whereby the plates were placed on loan at MAI. The following summer, MAI terminated the agreement and, in December of that year, Steve Kern offered a portion of his photogravure plates and proofs as a gift to the museum.
The plates and proofs are arranged by the volume of The North American Indian in which they were published. They are described in this finding aid by the caption and plate number with which they were published
The collection comprises 183 photogravure plates (101 folio and 82 octavo) and 96 associated proofs used in the printing of The North American Indian volumes 1-9 and 12-19. The original photographs used to make the photogravures were made circa 1903-1926 and the photogravure plates were made in 1907-1930. The bulk are portraits, though there are also images of everyday items, ceremonial artifacts, and camps. About half of the proofs in the collection are originals used for Curtis's publication, though the collection also includes proofs made in the process of later publication by the Classic Gravure Company (circa 1980). Vintage proofs include handwritten notes, likely made by Curtis Studio employees in Seattle and Los Angeles. Many of the photogravure plates do not have matching proofs; in particular, there are no proofs for the octavo plates.
Cite as
Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Edward S. Curtis photogravure plates and proofs for The North American Indian, Box and Folder Number; National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution
Repository Loc.
National Museum of the American Indian Archives, Cultural Resources Center, 4220 Silver Hill Road, Suitland, Maryland 20746. (tel: 301-238-1400, fax: 301-238-3038, email: Consult Archives for appointment
Data Source
National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center