Edward Curtis’s vision of Native Americans was shaped by his perception that they were a vanishing race. He therefore felt an urgency to capture their images on film for the future. His nostalgia for a world he imagined shaped the images he created. Some of Curtis’s photographs constructed a world that was not real for the Native American people depicted who had been living a different reality. Edward Curtis’s photographs have been influential in shaping the popular depiction of Native Americans that remains with us today: noble savages, victims, primitives, and highly romanticized figures. The twenty volumes (including portfolios and narrative text) he documented of over eighty tribes are (including portfolios and narrative text) to this day one of the most significant and controversial representations of Native American life ever assembled.
Curtis was among many photographers of his era who staged similar ‘cultural reenactments’— poses that did not entirely reflect the reality of the subjects’ lives but that served another purpose. Many of these images were taken for commercial reasons and sold. One such form was as stereoview cards, a very popular form of entertainment in the 19th century. While photography provided people with glimpses and mementos of distant lands, people, and cultures of all kinds, stereoviewers could enhance that image by making the subject appear to be in three dimensions. Native Americans were popular subjects, and the desire to appeal to the marketplace often led to biased depictions of appearance and behavior.
In 1886 W. Hanson Boorne, an immigrant from England, set up a photography studio in Calgary with his cousin Ernest May. An 1892 article describes the gallery this way: “[Boorne and May own] a large building devoted to the production of stock photographic views and numerous specialties, souvenir albums, lantern slides, etc. Besides this, they occupy a portrait studio and art repository… [which] is well worth a visit by tourists and other travelers,… well stocked with engravings, pictures and art goods of all descriptions, including the numberless photographic views of ranching, prairie and mountain scenery… besides these, a large variety of articles of buckskin and beadwork, manufactured by the native Indians…”
Born in Scotland but in the U.S. from 1856, Gardner became one of the best known photographers of the Civil War. He was a self-taught photographer whose interests included chemistry, optics, and astronomy. He worked with Matthew Brady for a time before opening his own studio in Washington. He was an official photographer for the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War and later an official photographer for the Union Pacific Railroad during the westward expansion. Gardner went west in 1867, taking wet plate photographs along the line of the railroad. His work was mostly stereographs. Among his most famous work are the photographs of the Lincoln Conspirators’ execution.
German born. Hillers served in the American army. He traveled with the Powell Survey of 1871-73, working as a photographer during the last two years. He continued to work with Powell through the 1870's on survey expeditions. Worked for the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology and U.S. Geological Surveys. He produced mostly albumen prints from glass plate negatives. Many of his pictures were stereographs.
An artist as well as a photographer, Jackson had a studio in the West from 1867. He had come from the Civil Service to open the studio in Omaha, Nebraska. From 1870-78 he was the official photographer with the Hayden Survey. He moved his studio to Denver in 1879. Over his long career he worked with wet plate collodion negatives and albumen prints, gelatin dry plates, and film negatives and silver prints. He worked with negatives up to 20x24 inches. He is most noted for his photographs of Yellowstone and a number of Native American portraits.
Curtis, Edward. The Master Prints. Santa Fe, NM. Arena Editions. 2001.
Curtis, Edward S. Native Nations: First Americans as seen by Edward S. Curtis. Bulfinch Press. 1993.
Fleming, Paula Richardson and Judith Luskey. The North American Indians in Early Photographs. Harpercollins. 1986.
Johnson, Tim. Spirit Capture: Photographs from the National Museum of the American Indian. Smithsonian Books. 1998.
Kazimi, Ali. Shooting Indians: A Journey with Jeffrey Thomas [videorecording]. Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ. Peripheral Visions Film Library. 1997.
Lyman, Christopher M. The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions: Photographs of Indians by Edward S. Curtis. New York. Pantheon Books. 1982.
Makepeace, Anne. Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians [videorecording]. Bullfrog Films. 2000.
Makepeace, Anne. Edward S. Curtis: Coming to Light. Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society. 2001.
Modica, Andrea. Real Indians: Portraits of Contemporary Native Americans and America’s Tribal Colleges. New York. Melcher Media. 2003.