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Edward S. Curtis: The Grand Idea

Edward S. Curtis: The Grand Idea

Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture

2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952). Curtis made his living as a photographer in Seattle in the late 1800s early 1900s but was not satisfied with his success as a society portrait artist. Gradually he began to envision “a comprehensive and permanent record of all the important tribes… that still retain to a considerable degree their primitive customs and traditions.” This goal, a multi-volume work entitled The North American Indian, took him over 30 years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Over that time he visited over 80 tribes, exposed approximately 40,000 negatives, and recorded more than 10,000 songs on wax cylinder. The two thousand images published in these volumes helped form prevailing ideas worldwide about Native Americans. The understanding available to us today shows us that Curtis used his considerable artistry to create an Indian world of his imagination. Yet the photos are of real people and remain a record, open to many interpretations, of American history, the history of photography, and for man, a visual connection to their ancestors. This exhibition will show photogravures from The North American Indian complemented by unpublished Curtis photographs, objects from the MAC American Indian and History Collections, and photographs by local contemporaries of Curtis from the MAC Archives.