Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) sought to create a photographic document of Native Americans. The photographs depicted, as Curtis wrote, “all features of indigenous life and environment — the young and the old, with their habitations, industries, ceremonies, games, and everyday customs.”
The 26 photogravures are part of Curtis’s The North American Indian, a series commissioned by J.P. Morgan in 1906. The goal of the project was to photograph and document Native American life, as many believed that the cultures were vanishing and that their traditions would soon be lost forever. When Curtis completed the project, he had taken over 40,000 photographs of 80 tribes and made over 10,000 sound recordings.
Curtis devoted his life to photography, and although he ended his formal education at sixth grade, he soon built his own camera and began working as an apprentice to a St. Paul, Minn., photographer. In 1898 he had a chance meeting with a group of conservationists who specialized in Native American ethnography. Curtis accompanied the group on two photographic expeditions, after which he began his own research on Native American life and lore, including customs, language, dwellings, dress, food, and political and social structure.
Curtis’s work has been the center of controversy since its creation, as many of his images were staged and manipulated. Critics state that the work is not authentic and presents a stereotypical assumption of Native peoples. In spite of such condemnations, Curtis is widely praised as a gifted photographer, and his images as exquisite representations of history and humanity.
What is a photogravure?
It’s a combination of photography and intaglio printmaking, where the photographic image is etched onto a copper plate. The plate can then be inked and printed to produce the image, rather than developing it on photographic paper with chemicals.
A photogravure can be made on a standard printing press and produces an image with a wide range of blacks and grays, so they often have more warmth and depth than a standard photographic print and they don’t fade as quickly.
Curtis’ works were among the last major body of work to be produced in this way before gelatin silver photo paper revolutionized photography with its relative simplicity.