Lessons from photographer Edward S. Curtis / by Jeannine Cook

I have been reading the recently-published, fascinating biography, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: the Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, by Timothy Egan..There is much to think about, particularly about Curtis' lifework recording the vestiges of the American Indians' lives, but also about his approach to photography and art.

Edward  S.Curtis, Self-Portrait, 1889

Curtis started out with a very limited education, but that did not prevent him becoming an outstanding and very famous photographer by the turn of the 20th century.

Princess Angeline (Kikisoblu), ca. 1895
Photo by Edward S. Curtis, Courtesy UW Special Collections

This amazing photograph was one of the first that Curtis took of an American Indian, the last surviving daughter of Chief Seattle, who lived in a waterfront shack in Seattle, the desperate remnant of a once-proud tribe.

According to Tim Egan, Curtis devoted great energies, first to studying pictures of the great art of the world - portraits, landscapes, all forms of painting - and then to translating his insights to the medium of photography.  His understanding of light, context, simplicity of composition, intensity of approach show an artistry that became one of his hallmarks throughout his life in photography. 

A Smoky Day at the Sugar Bowl – Hupa, 1923.
Photograph by Edward Curtis.
 Credit: Library of Congress

The other lesson that is clear from Curtis' work is that he created so many wonderful images because he knew his subjects well.  Whether it was Mount Rainier, the Hopi Indians, the Navajo or any other Indian tribe he recorded, he made it his business to find out as much as possible about the subject.  He knew what aspects to emphasise, what was important to record, how to bring out the beauty, the essence or the historical, human or physical significance of the subject.  

In other words, he followed the wisdom of all successful artists, in all media - know your subject so that you can depict it in the best and most meaningful way.