Today, many Natives have mixed feelings about the work of Edward Sheriff Curtis, the photographer who spent three decades documenting American Indians. His images have been and are the defining visual record of the original inhabitants of Turtle Island. Whether Natives today wish to be defined by these particular 100-year-old photos is up for debate.
But what cannot be argued is that Curtis was a masterful photographer, and that his images and writings are a priceless historical text. Well, not priceless—in fact, we shall soon know exactly how many dollars they command. On October 4, a complete set of Edward S. Curtis’ The North American Indian will go on the auction block at Swann Auction Galleries in New York City.
It is the headline item of the auction, consisting of 20 folios on Japan tissue that feature 722 large-format photogravures and 20 text volumes that themselves contain more than 1500 small-format photogravures on vellum. The gallery describes it as “one of the most stunning and ambitious photographically-illustrated books ever produced,” and expects it to fetch as much as $1.75 million.
From 1900 to 1930, Curtis traversed North America west of the Mississippi, from the Mexican border to northern Alaska, and captured more than 40,000 photographic images of about 80 North American Indian groups, including the Apache, Yakima, Cheyenne, Mojave, Piegan and Hopi people.
More than a mere photographer, Curtis was also a keen observer who recorded the lifestyles and habits of each tribe in painstaking detail. Daile Kaplan, Vice President and Director of Photographs and Photobooks at Swann Auction Galleries, explains that the value of The North American Indian goes beyond the famous photography: “The beautifully bound books, which are also illustrated, include detailed accounts of native life, with transcriptions of songs, linguistic dictionaries, and pictographs associated with various tribes.”
Known by many natives as the “Shadow Catcher,” Curtis was the paparazzi of his time, snapping shots of many important Native American leaders, such as Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Red Cloud and Medicine Crow. While Curtis’ intention was to capture the American Indians authentically in their own element, he has been criticized by some ethnologists for manipulating his images and portraying American Indians as a sad, hopeless, vanishing race.
But Kaplan begs to differ. “In fact, I’d suggest the opposite—that he depicted native subjects with dignity and respect. It’s my understanding that, after PBS televised Anne Makepeace’s documentary about Curtis [Coming to Light], the native community’s position about his images radically changed.” Kaplan goes on to suggest that had Curtis not recorded native rituals and ceremonies, “they’d be completely lost to native peoples today.” Kaplan says that since most Native Americans couldn’t afford the luxury of owning a Kodak camera, Curtis’ work is especially important because it contains what are often the only existing photos of tribal family members.
The North American Indian was supposed to be a five-year project, but it took 30 years to complete. Although this ambitious project was originally planned to encompass 500 sets, Curtis was continually hard-pressed for cash and completed only 272. The set being auctioned off by Swann Auction Galleries is ink numbered 113/500. It appears to be the only version that also contains 111 large-format photogravures signed by Curtis.