American photo historian Edward S. Curtis may have single-handedly documented vanishing Native American tribes of the early twentieth century. Aren’t these portraits just ridiculous? The costumes, the hairstyles, and deep, knowing stares are haunting. However, these are more than documents of a lost generation. The history of how these photos came to be is pretty incredible, too:
In 1906 J.P. Morgan offered Curtis $75,000 to produce a series on the North American Indian. It was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Morgan was to receive 25 sets and 500 original prints as his method of repayment. 222 complete sets were eventually published. Curtis’ goal was not just to photograph, but to document, as much American Indian (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.
What an incredible opportunity to document a culture in decline. I’m quite impressed that someone in a position of wealth was cognizant that Native American life was quickly disappearing and took action at the time.