(b White Water, WI, 1868; d Los Angeles, CA, Oct 21, 1954).
American photographer. A self-taught photographer, in 1887 he became a partner in a portrait studio in Seattle, where he experimented with new subject-matter. He decided to make the photography of native peoples his speciality and accompanied anthropologists on the Harriman Expedition to Alaska in 1899 and to Montana in 1900. In 1901 he conceived a vast project to document photographically the lives, customs and folklore of the native American tribes and to record their customs. President Theodore Roosevelt introduced him to J. Pierpont Morgan, who sponsored Curtis’s work and his publication of the luxurious 20-volume compendium The North American Indian (1907–30).
Curtis’s photographs in The North American Indian reflected the contemporary view of American Indians as ‘noble savages’. He judged his methods to be far superior to those of his predecessor, George Catlin. In wishing to document the vanishing culture of the rapidly Europeanized American Indian, he romanticized the settings of his photographs, sometimes adding props consisting of ‘scalps’, head-dresses and ceremonial costume, suggesting, for example, the inherent warrior nature of the men and the promiscuity of the young women. To reduce the intervention of contemporary settings, he freely altered negatives and reduced the depth of field using a large aperture to soften the surroundings of his subject. His portraits adopted the tight cropping and full-face or profile formats characteristic of ethnographic photography. His formal mastery and his concern with creating works of art as well as documents of a culture distinguished him from other contemporary photographers of the ‘vanishing race’. He also made a film of the Kwakiutl people called ...