Edward Curtis was probably slightly mad when he began photographing the “vanishing Indians” of North America in 1906. With a $75,000 grant from financier J. P. Morgan, Curtis planned to spend five years on the enterprise; by the time he finished his project 30 years later, he was a broken man.
In those three decades, Curtis hauled his equipment across 9,000 miles of often rudimentary roads to take pictures of 80 tribes west of the Mississippi (including Canada and Alaska), making 40,000 negatives and 10,000 recordings. He photographed southern California’s Indians in the 1920s. The first volume of his collection – titled “The North American Indians” – was completed in 1907. Although Morgan died in 1913, his son continued with some support, but Curtis was always strapped for cash.
San Diegans are in a rare position. The San Diego Public Library owns number 285 of the 300 or so sets that were printed, and through January, photos from the portfolios will be on display in the central library’s Wangenheim Room. Each set contains 1,500 volume-size and 722-portfolio-size photogravures, so because of the sheer number of images, librarians are rotating photos in and out of the display.
Curtis’ images of Indians are burned into the hearts and minds of many Americans to this day. They are also at the center of controversy.
The photos are so luminous and exquisitely composed that it is impossible to imagine the disputation that rages around them. Curtis started as a society photographer in Seattle, and his portraits of Indians are as stunning as those he might have taken of big-wigs. His eye was unerring, no matter his subject. In commenting on Curtis’ many images of women, the writer Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Band Chippewa, says that Curtis made his subjects so dimensional, present and complete that the women seemed to be present, alive in the print and looking back at her.
Curtis also draws us into haunting and spectacular landscapes of Indian country. The most famous of those is a shot of Indians on horseback crossing Canyon de Chelly, on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. The photo shows dark figures almost chiseled into a background of tall sandstone buttes and limitless space. He also photographs the mundane: the dwellings, baskets, pots and clothing of his subjects.