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Edward Sheriff Curtis (American, 1868-1952)


Also known as:  Curtis, Edward; Curtis, Edward S.; Edward S. Curtis

Birth Place: Whitewater (Walworth county, Wisconsin, United States)

The North American Indian by Edward Sheriff Curtis was a vast project that spanned over twenty years yet was never fully completed. It was published between 1907 and 1930 in limited editions and was available by subscription only. Due to its limited availability and cost (around $3,000 in 1907), it received mixed reviews. Curtis's intention was to document the customs the North American Indian tribes, and with funding from J.P. Morgan, Curtis set out in 1906 to record this quickly-vanishing culture. Whether intentional or not, The North American Indian held up the American notion of otherness in regards to the indigenous North American inhabitants. Despite this, Curtis's portfolios are the most thorough and significant depictions of traditional Indian culture.

What set Curtis's portfolios apart from the work of other contemporary photographers was the scope and vastness of the project. By its completion, Curtis had taken 40,000 photographic images of over eighty Indian tribes resulting in twenty volumes of approximately seventy-five photogravures. The accompanying twenty portfolios had approximately thirty-five individual photogravures in each folio. In total, there were 1,511 plates in the beautifully bound volumes and 723 plates in the portfolios, totaling 2,234 plates in all. In addition to the photography, he made a film, wrote about tribal history, and described traditional food, garments, ceremonies, and funeral customs. Curtis also made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of native Indian music and language, resulting in the only recorded history of such a vast and diverse race.

Despite the vastness and importance of such a volume of work, Curtis went bankrupt before its completion. The profits for the project were liquidated in 1935, and the remaining material sold to a rare books dealer in Boston where it was virtually forgotten until its re-discovery in the 1970s. Today, these photogravure prints are the most regularly traded photographic prints in the photography art market.

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