Edward S. Curtis, Shadow Catcher


Many years ago, when I was living in the Southwest, I took a trip back to Cape Cod, to visit an old friend. While there, we went into an antique store. On the upper level, I was drawn to an Indian print, done in sepia tone. At the time I knew nothing about the photographer or about the Zuni tribe (the photograph referenced the man as a Zuni governor). All I knew was the photograph brought tears to my eyes, and, even though it meant buying a larger suitcase, I needed to take the print home with me.


My Zuni Governor

The print turned out to be a copy of a photograph taken by famed photographer, Edward S. Curtis, who, over the course of thirty years, took over 40,000 images of a dying breed–the American Indian in his native setting. As I began to do the research on the man, I came across this quote from Native American and author, N. Scott Momoday. “Some years ago I purchased a Curtis photograph of Plains Indians on horseback, moving with travois across an immense landscape of grasses._…I had not seen the photograph before. It struck me with such force that tears came to my eyes. I felt that I was looking into a memory in my blood…”


Edward S. Curtis, circa 1889

 Sound familiar?

Fortunately, Edward S. Curtis realized what many others did not–the Native American culture was dying out and he needed to record as much as he could while he still could. As he said, “It’s such a big dream, I can’t see it all.” Every year, if he could procure funding, he’d pack his cameras and head into the Indian territories. He was in a race to document and record these cultures before they were gone. His vision, and his unrelenting focus during his lifetime, created a lasting legacy of the Native Americans and of their historic significance.

Curtis, born in 1868 in Wisconsin, began a love of photography in St. Paul, MN, where he served as an apprentice at a studio. Instead of staying with his employer, he left Minnesota with the rest of his family and headed west when he was in his late teens. The family eventually settled in Seattle, where Edward married Clara Phillips, bought into a local photography studio and eventually had four children.

The studio in Seattle became increasingly popular, in large part due to the wealthy society ladies who lined up to have their portraits taken by the handsome Mr. Curtis. But the dashing man was drawn to the outdoors and spent as much time as he could photographing nature’s beauty. It was in Seattle where his first involvement with the photography of Native Americans took place.


Three Chiefs

Curtis was thirty years old when he met and quickly became friends with anthropologist George Bird Grinnell. Curtis was made the official photographer for an expedition to Alaska and for two months took pictures of everything encountered on the expedition, including Eskimo settlements. The following year, Grinnell invited Curtis to Montana to photograph the Piegan Blackfeet tribe. Grinnell was well-known in the Blackfeet community and opened the door for Curtis to become involved and trusted by the tribe. Curtis witnessed his first “Sun Dance,” one of the last ever to be performed, and became enamored of his dignified subjects and their primitive customs.

Curtis needed money to further his explorations and his photographs of a dying way of life, so he approached JP Morgan, who eventually agreed to fund him, and paid $75,000 over the course of several years. Without this financial backing, which helped fund not only equipment and supplies, but also knowledgeable assistants, both comfortable with the cameras and scholarly on the various tribes, their customs and movements and who would pave the way for Curtis to set up his camera. For his money, Morgan gained 500 prints and 25 volumes of songs, music and language of more than 80 tribes.

The camera used was a 14 by 17 inch view monster that produced glass-plate negatives. These glass-plate negatives produced the sepia-toned prints that became his signature look. As his reputation grew, he was able to photograph some of the most important and well-respected Native Americans–Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Red Cloud, Medicine Crow–to name a few. He earned the name Shadow Catcher among the tribes he was documenting. In addition to the exceptional photogravure prints, Curtis copied nongravure prints in a variety of techniques, which he offered for sale as he promoted his pet project by going on a lecture circuit.


Canyon de Chelly, Navajo,  (1904)  Photo: Library of Congress


In the next thirty years, he took over 40,000 pictures, but it came at a cost. After his benefactor died, Morgan’s children continued to fund Curtis’s efforts, but as a much lesser support level than before. His endless months in the field and then on the lecture circuit destroyed his marriage. Curtis lost his family, his fortune and his business. He suffered a total breakdown in both body and spirit, and was hospitalized in Colorado. He died in 1952 of a heart attack, never realizing the fame his photographs later achieved, nor his lasting legacy. Today, a complete set of prints, printed on high-grade tissue paper, are worth more than one million dollars.

And my Zuni Governor? I finally have been able to put a name to his arresting face–Bick Juna.  This photo, plus several others of him taken at the same time, was copyrighted in 1903. Beyond this tiny scrap of information, not much is known. But I am glad I rescued him from the antique store in Cape Cod and brought him back to the southwest for a time.