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Friday, March 6, 2015

Edward Curtis Everywhere: Smithsonian Collections Bring a Famous Photographer into Focus

Edward Curtis with his daughter Beth in a kayak in Alaska, 1927. Negative AK72onn, Photo Lot 2010-28,
National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
With the support of a Smithsonian Women's Committee grant, I have spent much of the last year diving into the photographs of one man – Edward Sheriff Curtis. One of the funniest things about spending a long time working with a collection is that you start to realize how many related things you come across in life outside of work. And one of the most shocking things about working with a photographer like Curtis is to find that his work is everywhere. In the past few months, I have found Curtis photographs in a museum exhibition on race, an article on linguistics and anthropology, several advertisements, and even an episode of the television sitcom The League.

During the early part of the twentieth century, Curtis embarked on a monumental project to document American Indian tribes that still maintained “their primitive customs and traditions” in twenty volumes of The North American Indian. Though the project bankrupted and nearly destroyed him, Curtis’s soft-focus images of a “vanishing race” have defined popular depictions of native peoples for good and ill. The photographs are rife with controversy and scholars have described them as both supportive and repressive of the people they depict.

Portrait of Bell Rock by Edward S. Curtis. NAA INV 03078100,
Photo Lot 59, National Anthropological Archives, 
Smithsonian Institution.
Photogravure printing plate for Plate 414: Chaiwa– Tewa; 1921; Edward S. Curtis photogravure plates and proofs for The North American Indian, Box F24; National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.
Much of my job has been to cross-reference Curtis collections at the Smithsonian and in other institutions, so that we can get a better idea of the scope of Curtis's entire body of work. Copies of Curtis photographs can be found in a huge number of archives though there are one-of-a-kind pieces, many of which are at the Smithsonian. The National Anthropological Archives has many of Curtis’s original negatives and the National Museum of the American Indian Archives Center has copper printing plates and proofs that he used to make his monumental The North American Indian series. NMAI’s Mary Harriman Rumsey collection of Harriman Alaska Expedition photographs also includes photographs that Curtis made before he ever decided to embark on this major project, so we can see how his approach changed over time. By mapping these collections, in conjunction with other Curtis collections at these two archives, we finally have a glimpse of Curtis’s entire work, not just what was selected for publication.

Glass negative edited by Edward Curtis for publication as “Sunset in Navaho-land,” plate 38. Negative 1042gcn, Photo Lot 2010-28, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
It has been fascinating to see these images, which have become so commonplace in our culture today, in their original forms. Most of the prints and negatives at the NAA bear the clean lines of an unfiltered photograph, so different from the out-of-focus style in which they were published, and many show the retouching that Curtis used to stylize and edit his work. Meanwhile NMAI’s printing plates and proofs give a glimpse of the printing process, which defined this photographer's work and life for so many years, not to mention gives us the images that we are most accustomed to seeing. Curtis may be ubiquitous, but he certainly isn't one-dimensional.

Sarah Ganderup
Contract Photograph Archivist
National Anthropological Archives

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