In the early 1900s, photographer Edward S. Curtis set out on an epic mission: to capture the experiences of Native Americans throughout the American West. Over the span of 30 years, Curtis documented more than 80 tribes west of the Mississippi, from the Mexican border to northern Alaska.
After decades of work (funded by financier J.P. Morgan), Curtis and his field team ended up with more than 40,000 photographs, 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American music and stories, and stacks of notes and sketches. The collections were compiled into a 20-volume set of books, titled The North American Indian.
Blackfoot Encampment, 1899
On The Road, 1990
Out Of The Darkness, 1899
Evening On The Sound, 1899
Navajo Blanket Weavers, 1904
Sheep Mountain, 1905
The Scout, 1906
Housetop Life, 1906
The photographs command respect for a group of people that had been marginalized over the span of the 19th century. But the work has also been met with criticism. Some have argued the photos, many of which were staged, present a romanticized version of Native American life—by a white photographer.
By the time Curtis approached various tribes, their way of life had already been forcibly changed by U.S. government policies, so he staged many of the photos. Curtis had his subjects dress in traditional clothing that most no longer wore. And he photographed people in settings seemingly untouched by time—sometimes even altering photos to remove modern artifacts from view.
As art historian Shannon Egan argues, Curtis may have been driven to preserve what the photographer described as a “vanishing race,” but his staged photos “suppressed the plight of the ‘real’ Indians and replaced it with a narrative of Indianness that served the artistic and political needs of an Anglo-American culture.”
The images of Native American tribes captured by Curtis and his team may present an idealized perspective, but the work has nonetheless been celebrated for the beauty of the images and their documentary value.