Library of Congress images from America’s past. Astonishing. We’ve barely scratched the surface – see hundreds more here…
Curtis, Edward S., 1868-1952, photographer
In 1906 J.P. Morgan offered Curtis $3,000 to produce a series of images documenting Native Americans. It was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Curtis’ goal was not just to photograph, but to document, as much Native American traditional life as possible before that way of life disappeared. He wrote in the introduction to his first volume in 1907: “The information that is to be gathered … respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.” Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian language and music. He took over 40,000 photographic images from over 80 tribes. He recorded tribal lore and history, and he described traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs. He wrote biographical sketches of tribal leaders, and his material, in most cases, is the only recorded history.
Curtis has been praised as a gifted photographer but also criticized by professional ethnologists for manipulating his images. Curtis’ photographs have been charged with misrepresenting Native American people and cultures by portraying them in the popular notions and stereotypes of the times. Although the early twentieth century was a difficult time for most Native communities in America, not all natives were doomed to becoming a “vanishing race.” At a time when natives’ rights were being denied and their treaties were unrecognized by the federal government, many natives were successfully adapting to western society. By reinforcing the native identity as the noble savage and a tragic vanishing race, some believe Curtis detracted attention from the true plight of American natives at the time when he was witnessing their squalid conditions on reservations first-hand and their attempt to find their place in Western culture and adapt to their changing world.