Such a Big Dream, You Can't See It All

Apr 18, 2016

One of my favorite parts of my job is looking at the photographs being brought into the digital library. A couple of weeks ago, some idyllic pictures of the Roosevelt boys captured me. They were unlike the frozen and stoic pictures usually taken at the time. One images shows the tousled top of a young Quentin’s head as it is buried among daisies as he looks for June bugs. Another frozen in time image has Archie and Quentin barefoot and in shorts blowing bubbles on the lawn of Sagmore Hill.  Another shows a very patient family pet being buried in sand by the boys, who had also been burying each other in the sand. The images are rare glimpses into the life of a famous family.

As I researched more into the pictures I discovered the photographer wasn’t just a family friend but the famous photographer Edward Curtis. If the name doesn’t click right away, his images and his legacy will. Curtis’ passion was photographing the vanishing Native American tribes of the United States.  The passion would possess him for 30 years and in the end drain him financially and emotionally.

Curtis’ passion began with a Civil War lens and $1.25 worth of camera parts. He built his first camera and combined it with his love of the outdoors. By the time he was 17 he was a photographic apprentice, experimenting with photographic techniques and ideas. His family moved near Seattle and this would begin Curtis’ interest in the American Indian. His first photograph of a Native American was Princess Angeline, the daughter of Chief Sealth or Seattle.

Curtis’ love of photography led him to creating a successful photography studio and numerous awards. One of these awards would lead Curtis to TR and the earlier mentioned photos. Curtis had won a national portrait contest and was invited by TR to photograph his children. This connection would lead to a friendship between the men and help to advance Curtis’ dream.

 “It’s such a big dream, I can’t see it all.” – Edward Curtis

The dream was to produce the record of a vanishing American Indian culture. His plan was to create a photo ethnographic study to be published in the highest quality limited edition book set ever made in America. Curtis would spend 30 years on this project, make forty-five to fifty thousand negatives, ten thousand wax recordings, and one of the most extensive films ever made of American Indians. The project was compared to the undertaking of publishing the King James Edition of the Bible.

With the financial backing of J. P. Morgan and others, Curtis began the arduous process of recording the vanishing culture of the American Indian. In the end it would it cost him personally and financially. The result was a twenty volume, twenty-portfolio set of books hand-bound in leather, with hand-set letter press text and hand pulled photogravure prints, all printed on handmade, imported etching stock. The set contained more than 2,200 original photographs and nearly 4,000 pages of text including transcriptions of languages and music. The set was so expensive to produce that only 300 (of an estimated 400 sets needed to break even) were produced.

Curtis would suffer a nervous breakdown after finally completing his dream. He spent the last years of his life with his daughter. He died in 1952, penniless and with an obituary that gave only a passing mention of his life as a photographer.

Though Curtis’ work was not rewarded during his lifetime, it lives on in digital form today. One of the original sets was purchased for Northwestern University “through the farseeing generosity of the Honorary Regents”, among whom are listed Robert Todd Lincoln and John D. Rockefeller. The entire work is made available by Northwestern through a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.  Click here to access document.

Quentin and daisies

Quentin Picking Daisies. [1904?]. Prints and Photographs division. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Dickinson State University. Click here to see picture details.

Posted by Pamla Kukla on Apr 18, 2016 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (1)  |  Share this post

ted strauss said,

Ms. Kukla, Thank you for sharing this beautiful image and story. I came across this blog post while researching an important in the history of Edward S. Curtis' project. In the book cited below, there is a passage that mentions that President Roosevelt convened a committee of anthropologists and ethnographers to make a scholarly review of Curtis' ongoing project. Apparently Curtis had received criticism from some quarters, including from eminent Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas, and Roosevelt felt a review was warranted. No specific date is given, but would likely be around 1908-12, and so far I haven't found any other reference to this committee in works about Curtis. Can you suggest how I might search the Roosevelt archive to find any documentation that may exist about this committee or correspondence with anyone involved? Edward S. Curtis, Above the Medicine Line: Portraits of Aboriginal Life in the Canadian West. By Rodger D. Touchie. Vancouver: Heritage House Publishing, 2010. 191 pp.

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