Edward S. Curtis 1868–1952

Gelatin silver print, 1899

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

For more than thirty years Edward S. Curtis traveled throughout the West, studying and photographing Native American communities. His ambitious goal was to produce a comprehensive documentary record of what he described as “one of the greatest races of mankind,” yet one that was destined to “be lost for all time.”

With encouragement from Theodore Roosevelt and financial support from banker J. P. Morgan, Curtis created more than forty thousand photographs that pictured many aspects of Native American life. Influenced by fine art photography, he emphasized aesthetics as much as ethnographic information. A selection of these images was included within his deluxe twenty-volume series, The North American Indian (1907–30).

Curtis also collected cylinder recordings of Native American music and in 1914 released a ground-breaking silent film, In the Land of the Head Hunters, about the Kwakiutl of British Columbia. This dashing self-portrait shows the Seattle-based photographer at the outset of his career.