Man, since early cave days, has always desired to record history in an artistic manner. For centuries masters of paintings have given us truly remarkable portrayals of history and mankind. In 1826 Joseph-Nicephore Niepce of France took this a step further and developed a method of taking a picture, which he called a heliograph, which produced an image after eight hours of exposure. About ten years later Macques Mande Daguerre found another way to reproduce an image. The 'Daguerreotype' gave a permanent image after just 20 minutes of exposure and photography then became the 'thing' to give us lasting memories. By the time Edward S. Curtis took it upon himself to photograph and document the life of the Native Americans, the camera had developed into a much better version, able to take images quicker and transfer them to glass plate negatives. The images were called photogravures.
Edward Sheriff Curtis was born in Wisconsin in 1868. His father, Johnson Curtis, was a preacher for United Brethren Church. The family moved to Minnesota in 1874. Edward would often go on the canoe trips with his father and camp outdoors with him as they visited members of the congregation. Johnson taught his son river navigation and good camping skills. Father and son shared a love of outdoor life. This type of life prepared Edward well for the journeys he would take later in life while photographing Native Americans in their natural life styles. Curtis became one of the finest photographers and ethnologists of all time.
The documentation of Native American culture and history could have been lost if not for the invention of the camera and the dedication of people like Edward Sheriff Curtis. Curtis was born in Wisconsin in 1868 and died in Los Angeles in 1952 at the age of 84, at the home of his daughter. In his life he managed to portray the Native American as no one had done before or since. He made wax cylinder recordings of their language and music, took over 40,000 images, documented mythologies, history, population, the types of foods they ate, what their dwellings were like, their customs and beliefs.
There is no more beautiful a collection of memories and history of these peoples than the photography of Curtis, who gave us the historical images of Native Americans from 1900 - 1930, which he put into a collection of 20 volumes with 300 pages of text and 75 photogravures each. He also provided a portfolio of at least 36 photogravures to accompany each volume. For 30 years Curtis traveled lands from the Mexican border to Northern Alaska and documented the images and lives of over 80 tribes west of the Mississippi. Often, his wife and children accompanied him, along with his assistant, William Myers. He called his work "The North American Indian". It was his determination and goal to make sure that the Native American people and their cultures, ceremonies, customs and beliefs would have a place in history before they vanished, which was the common opinion of scholars in his day.
Curtis did not just take pictures of the Indians in their daily life patterns and their landscapes and leave for another journey. With his assistant William Myers he stayed with them, talked with them and lived their daily life with them. In 1900 he observed the Sun Dance of the Blood, Blackfoot and Algonquin tribes in Montana. He stayed with them that whole summer, experiencing their ceremonial traditions. That same year he visited on the Hopi reservation in Arizona. He visited and lived with many other tribes during his years of work. His determination and enthusiasm drove him to document as much as he could, sending the glass plate negatives to his studio in Seattle where Adolph Muhr developed the images. After Muhr died in 1913, Ella McBride, his assistant, took over the dark room work.
In 1904 Curtis travelled to the east coast to meet with Frederick Webb Hodge of the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology. Hodge listened to Curtis' plan, was as enthusiastic as Curtis and became the editor of the entire North American Indian project. He believed in Curtis and his vision and they became lifelong friends.
The Native American tribes, their traditions, cultures, beliefs and ceremonies have not vanished. They are still very much alive, and thanks to dedicated photographers like Edward S. Curtis, their images from the past are still with us today, giving these people beautiful memories and images of their ancestors and making others aware of the race that refused to vanish.
These beautiful images come alive when gazed upon. When I look at these photographs that Curtis took, I feel as though I am being transported back in time, standing next to him and seeing a proud and noble people. Curtis was able to grasp the beauty and pride of the Native American and preserve it for all to see. There is one photograph called "Out Of The Dark" that shows riders on horseback emerging from the dark mists of a forest. I feel if I just stretch out my arms, I will be able to stroke the horses' neck as they pass by me.