Cogswell exhibits Edward S. Curtis | VailDaily.com
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Cogswell exhibits Edward S. Curtis

Daily Staff Report

VAIL – Although unknown for many years, Edward S. Curtis is known today as one of the most celebrated photographers of native people. Cogswell Gallery in Vail hosts an exhibit starting Friday.

Born near White Water, Wis., on Feb. 16, 1868, Curtis became interested in the emerging art of photography when he was quite young, building his first camera when he was still an adolescent. In Seattle, where his family moved in 1887, he acquired part interest in a portrait photography studio and soon became sole owner of the successful business, renaming it Edward S. Curtis Photographer and Photoengraver.In the mid 1890s, Curtis began photographing local Puget Sound Native Americans digging for clams and mussels on the tide flats. One of his earliest models was Princess Angeline, the aged daughter of Sealth, the Suquamish chief after whom Seattle was named. Later, as an official photographer of the 1899 Harriman Expedition, Curtis documented the geological features of the Alaskan wilderness as well as its indigenous population. This was a pivotal experience for Curtis and greatly increased his interest in native cultures. He visited tribal communities in Montana and Arizona and began in earnest to photograph many other Native Americans in the West, spending more time in the field and less time in his studio.

In the early years of the 20th century, Curtis embarked on a 30-year mission which he described as an effort “to form a comprehensive and permanent record of all the important tribes of the United States and Alaska that still retain to a considerable degree their … customs and traditions.” Along with most scholars of this period, he believed that indigenous communities would inevitably be absorbed into white society, losing their unique cultural identities. He wanted to create a scholarly and artistic work that would document the ceremonies, beliefs, customs, daily life and leaders of these groups before they “vanished.” The “North American Indian Project,” Curtis decided, would be a set of 20 volumes of ethnographic text illustrated with high quality photoengravings taken from his glass plate negatives. Each of these volumes would be accompanied by a portfolio of large size photogravures, bound in leather and printed on the highest quality paper. To fund the enormous project, Curtis would sell subscriptions to 500 sets of the publication.



“Rediscovered” in the 1960s and 1970s, Curtis’s photographic work is now recognized as one of the most significant records of native culture ever produced. His photographs have been included in virtually every anthology of historical photographs of Native Americans and are now frequently used to illustrate books and documentaries.For more information on the exhibit at Cogswell Gallery, call 476-1769.Vail Colorado


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