A trained ethnographer, Edward Curtis did his most famous work on a deadline. He received a massive $75,000 (roughly equivalent to $2,000,000 today) grant from J.P. Morgan to continue his work capturing images of Native American tribes in 1906 before they disappeared. Curtis, who grew up in Wisconsin before relocating to the Pacific Northwest, knew that what he failed to photograph might simply disappear. “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,” Curtis wrote in 1907.
Though Curtis traveled extensively while working on the 20-volume North American Indians, his work in the Southwest was notable. The simple reason the images he captured in Arizona and New Mexico stood out was that several of the tribes he was working with – the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni – were not nomadic. He visited on several occasions, ingratiating himself and earning enough respect to be allowed to participate in ceremonies and tribal events. He would ultimately document 30 tribes in the Southwest alone.
After working with North American Indians for 26 years, Curtis suffered a mental breakdown and moved to Denver. He gave up photography after that, and despite kind words from President Teddy Roosevelt (who described his work as “a service not only to our own people, but to the world of scholarship everywhere”) Curtis lapsed into obscurity. It wasn’t until the resurgence of interest in indigenous cultures hit in the Seventies that his work received the critical attention it deserved.
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Evening in Hopi Land