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The North American Indians Through the Lens of Edward S. Curtis

Endicott College is pleased to announce the summer exhibition of Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indians from Monday, June 22 – Friday, August 21 in the Heftler Visiting Artist Gallery at the Walter J. Manninen Center for the Arts, Endicott College, 376 Hale Street, Beverly.    Gallery Hours are Monday – Thursday, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and Friday, 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.  The exhibition is free and open to the public. 

The film Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians, Directed by Anne Makepeace, will be continuously running in the gallery.  This film lasts 85 minutes. This exhibition was organized by Blair-Murrah Exhibitions of Sibley, Missouri.

This outstanding exhibition contains 38 photogravures selected from Edward S. Curtis’ complete publication, The North American Indian, one of the largest photographic archives ever created by a single artist and probably the most profound representation of American Indian culture ever made in the 20th Century. Curtis’ full collection is comprised of approximately 40,000 images and he has published 20 volumes of The North American Indian. This monumental body of work captures the dignity of a people and is studded by famous examples of the faces of various Indian nations.  The photogravures that make up the Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indians exhibition capture many of the significant aspects of Indian culture in modernized Indian nations.        

Beautiful portraits of men, women and children who Curtis met during his years of study contribute to this astonishing exhibition.  Inherent in these portraits of old Pomo women and warriors of many tribes is a sense of spiritual loss that a way of life was about to vanish.  Highlighting this exhibition are several excellent examples of that particular way of life, such as "A Jemez Fiscal," a supervisor of church activities; portrait of a"Sia Buffalo Dancer" from the South West region; "Francisca Chiwiwi-Isleta," a man from Isleta where Spanish rather than Tiwa names were recorded; and "Aiyowits! A Cochiti," the woman responsible for the compilation of Cochiti relationship terms detailed in the Curtis volume about Indians in the Southwest.

Edward S. Curtis was born in 1868 in rural Wisconsin.  At the age of five he moved to Southern Minnesota with his family, and became fascinated with the new art of photography.  Curtis built his own camera before he was sixteen and subsequently spent a year as an apprentice photographer in St. Paul.

After his family moved to Seattle in 1887, Curtis established a photographic studio which did quite well.  His true passion, however, was not mere portraiture, but historical portraiture and documentation.  Curtis began his work in 1896, planning to study the customs and ceremonial life of Indian tribes west of the Mississippi from New Mexico to Alaska.  In 1899 Edward S. Curtis was the official photographer on the Harriman Alaskan expedition and became irresistibly intrigued with the North American Indian.  While he was interested in such phenomena as glacier forma­tion, the pictures that he took during his tour clearly reveal that he was also interested in the native people.

When Curtis began his project, the Indians were in a painful period of transition.  The hallowed grounds of their ancestors were being settled and irrigation ditches were blighting the Indian's wild buffalo hunting grounds.  Famous Indian chiefs were living in prisons or on reservations.  Geronimo, at age 76, was taking care of a small vegetable garden while a prisoner at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Edward S. Curtis sought not to document the decline of the American Indian, but to document the culture that had been and was still visible at least fragmentarily.  Curtis was struck by the reality of the North American Indian as a vanishing race.   His intent, as he explained it, was to “record the Indian's relationship with and his dependen­ce on the phenomena of the universe--the trees and shrubs, the sun and stars, the lightning and rain--for these to him are animate creatures."  Curtis appreciated the deification inherent in the Indian's view of nature. 

Planning to work at his own expense, he estimated that the photographing and compiling of the information about the tribes would take from ten to fifteen years.  In reality, the project took 30 years and cost about one million dollars.  He documented the culture of over 80 tribes and made over forty thousand negatives.

“The photographs by Curtis are considered to be the most monumental exploration of culture, history, and the human experience in Modern photography.  For these reasons we believe sharing this exhibit with our summer audiences is both an educational and aesthetic opportunity.  We are proud to host the exhibit while we are also hosting aspiring middle school children, teachers from Spain, local artists, the general public, and Endicott students and staff.  As an arts administrator of forty years in higher education and museums I can honestly state there is no greater body of work to share with the public and students,” from Dean Mark Towner, School of Visual and Performing Arts – Endicott College.

If you have any questions regarding the Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indians, or any of our programming in the Walter J. Manninen Center for the Arts at Endicott College, please contact Kathleen Moore, Coordinator of Visual Arts at 978-232-2655 or