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Shadow Catcher

Shadow Catcher-  Edward S. Curtis and North American Indians

Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952)   life long dedication , who gave his entire life and fortune to record on photographic film the memories of the last Native Nations of North America from the Apache, down in the South, to the Nunivak in Alaska.

In 1906 J.P. Morgan offered Curtis $75,000 to produce a series on the North American Indian. It was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Morgan was to receive 25 sets and 500 original prints as his method of repayment. 222 complete sets were eventually published.

 Curtis’ goal was not just to photograph, but to document, as much American Indian (Native American) traditional life as possible before that way of life disappeared. He wrote in the introduction to his first volume in 1907: “The information that is to be gathered … respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.”

 Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian language and music. He took over 40,000 photographic images from over 80 tribes. He recorded tribal lore and history, and he described traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs. He wrote biographical sketches of tribal leaders, and his material, in most cases, is the only recorded history.


Laurie Lawlor reveals that “many Native Americans Curtis photographed called him Shadow Catcher. But the images he captured were far more powerful than mere shadows.

 The men, women, and children in The North American Indian seem as alive to us today as they did when Curtis took their pictures in the early part of the twentieth century.

 Curtis respected the Indians he encountered and was willing to learn about their culture, religion and way of life. In return the Indians respected and trusted him. When judged by the standards of his time, Curtis was far ahead of his contemporaries in sensitivity, tolerance, and openness to Native American cultures and ways of thinking.”

Edward S. Curtis photography work can be seen here:

Edward S. Curtis Collection at library of Congress

Smithsonian Institution’s Frontier photographer Edward S. Curtis

The Curtis Collection Homepage