Edward S. Curtis: Sacred Legacy
December 2006 –
The Gallery of Photography is presenting the first exhibition in Ireland of work by Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952). Known to Native Americans as the “Shadowcatcher,” Curtis was a complicated, passionate, self-educated pioneer and visionary artist who became the most famous photographer of his time.
Between 1900 and 1930 he traveled from Mexico to the Arctic, from the Rockies to the Pacific, photographing and recording more than eighty different tribes of Native Americans. He created an astonishing body of work: 10,000 recordings, 40,000 photographs, 2,200 photogravures, twenty volumes of text, a full-length motion picture with Kwakiutl people in 1914, and several books of Indian stories.
His massive lifework The North American Indian was published between 1907 and 1930. It is not only an unparalleled artistic and historic achievement but also a watershed in publishing history.
Curtis had hoped to complete the project in five or six years within a budget of $25,000. In fact, its completion required more than thirty years and the assistance of a vast array of patrons, researchers, scientists, editors, master craftsmen, interpreters, sympathetic creditors, tribal elders, and medicine men. Ultimately, the project cost one and a half million dollars, a truly enormous sum at that time. And it also cost Curtis his family, his financial security and his health.
Nevertheless, to the end, he single-mindedly pursued his mission to catalog how Indians lived prior to their contact with the white man. “The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other;” believed Curtis, “consequently the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time.”