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June 21st, 2008, 10:15 AM
Edward Sheriff Curtis: One man's obsessive pursuit of the lost tribes of America

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 21/06/2008

They cost him his marriage and his health, but Edward Sheriff Curtis's photographs are still powerful today. By Benjamin Secher

In 1896, Edward Sheriff Curtis took his first formal portrait of an American Indian. His subject was the elderly Princess Angeline. Only 40 years earlier, her father, chief of the Duwamish-Suquamish tribe, had presided over the land on which the city of Seattle now stands, but by the time Curtis shot her, the princess cut a poignant figure, agreeing to sit for the 28-year-old photographer for a dollar a shot.

Geronimo, leader of the Chiricahuan Apache tribeA few years later he took a similarly powerful image of Geronimo, wrapped in a rough blanket and crowned with a ceremonial headdress. The ageing leader of the Chiricahua Apache tribe fixes the viewer with a discomfiting, reproachful stare. "Formerly the war spirit of the Apaches," reads Curtis's caption for the image "now a prisoner of war in Indian territory".

These portraits, which feature in a book of Curtis's photography published by Phaidon this month, marked the start of an all-consuming obsession. Curtis devoted the next three decades of his life to an attempt to construct "a comprehensive and permanent record of all important tribes of the United States and Alaska".

During those 30 years (twice the time he had originally planned for the project), Curtis visited more than 80 tribes, from the Apache to the Zui, and earned the personal support of the president, Theodore Roosevelt. He worked 15-hour days for months at a time, spent more than $1.5 million of his benefactor JP Morgan's money, was shot at four times, disowned by his brother, divorced by his wife, and went bankrupt. On returning from one prolonged trip into Eskimo territory he was thrown into jail for failure to make alimony payments.

Yet Curtis was indefatigable: no amount of adversity could sap his passion for documenting the traditions of a people who didn't always want to be documented. "I have grown so used to having people yell at me to keep out, and then punctuate their remarks with mud, rock and clubs," he once said, "that I pay but little attention to them if I can only succeed in getting my picture before something hits me."

He succeeded in taking more than 40,000 pictures, the best of which formed the basis of The North American Indian, a vast ethnographic study, published in 20 volumes between 1907 and 1930. On the appearance of the first volume, the New York Herald declared it "the most gigantic undertaking in the making of books since the King James edition of the Bible".

Curtis was convinced that he was capturing the dying days of "a vanishing race". Indeed, such was his obsession with recording arcane traditions that, to the indignation of the academic community, he would often encourage his subjects to recreate rituals which they no longer performed, even providing his own props where necessary. In his rather self-important introduction to the first volume of The North American Indian, he stated his concern that "the passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other.

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." His fears were exaggerated, but the fact that American Indian communities have thrived rather than faded in the years since Curtis died does nothing to diminish the haunting beauty of his photography: whether in an unforgettable shot of Red Hawk, in full headdress, watering his horse on the badlands of South Dakota; or a beautifully composed image of four extravagantly coiffed Hopi women demonstrating a traditional method of grinding maize.

There is a romantic quality to many of these pictures, an undercurrent of nostalgia enhanced by Curtis's masterful use of soft focus and the unflinching intensity of his eye-to-eye portraits of heroic figures now long dead.

Curtis could not have got these pictures without earning the friendship and trust of the communities he was photographing - and he would stop at nothing to achieve it. At a time when it was rare for a white American to have anything to do with his Indian compatriots, Curtis dived headlong into native culture, earning himself a traditional nickname ("the shadow catcher") and joining Hopi tribesmen in their famous snake dance, "dressed in a G string… and with the regulation snake in my mouth".

Even the president couldn't fail to be impressed by the single-minded determination of this extreme character. "Mr Curtis… has been able to do what no other man ever has done," wrote Roosevelt in his foreword to The North American Indian, "what, as far as we can see, no other man could do." Shortly after the publication of the final two volumes, exhausted and broke, Curtis suffered what he would later describe as a "complete physical breakdown", from which he never fully recovered.

Much of his later life was spent in an arduous scrabble for cash: for a number of years, he worked in Hollywood as an uncredited cameraman for Cecil B DeMille, and made one film of his own called In the Land of the Head-Hunters, which brought him further fame but little money. "Following the Indian form of naming men," he said at the age of 83, "I would be termed 'The Man Who Never Took Time to Play'." A year later he was dead, of a heart attack.

His passing was marked by a meagre 76-word obituary in the New York Times, but the monumental achievement of The American Indian ensured that he would not easily be forgotten. "The ordinary book of today will last but a few generations," said WH Holmes, chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology, after the final volume appeared. "This publication should last for a thousand years."

'Edward Sheriff Curtis' (Phaidon) is available from Telegraph Books for 11.99. Call 0870 428 4112, or go to books.telegraph.co.uk (http://books.telegraph.co.uk/)


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