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Edward S. Curtis Portraits : The Many Faces of the Native Americans - Wayne Youngblood


Photographer Edward S. Curtis was a prolific photographer and recorder of Native American culture. Edward S. Curtis Portraits is a collection of his most moving cultural portraits.

In 1906, J. P. Morgan commissioned Edward S. Curtis to produce a series of books depicting Native American life. Edward S. Curtis Portraits contains over 250 of the project’s beautiful and haunting portraits.


“In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose pictures are pictures, not merely photographs.” —President Theodore Roosevelt


Talented photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis set out on the project with the goal of becoming a successful portrait artist, but as he worked taking photographs of the “vanishing Indian,” he discovered a calling as an ethnographer and embarked on a mission to document every aspect of traditional Native American culture before it disappeared forever. He considered the loss of Native American traditions a national tragedy and sacrificed his financial security, marriage, and even his health to pursue his mission.


Curtis’s highly expressive portraits convey the full range of human emotions, attesting to the trust he established with his subjects, and serve as exquisite examples of classic portraiture. From Alaska to Mexico, the photographs in this compact volume feature tribes such as:

The Apache

The Jicarillas

The Navaho

The Papago

The Qahatika

The Mohave

The Yuma

The Maricopa

The Walapai

The Havasupai

The Yavapai

And many more

Though Curtis has been criticized for idealizing the people he photographed with props and staged shots, his deep respect for them and earnest attempt to understand them is apparent in his work. Today, these portraits allow us a precious glimpse into Native American life as it existed before complete colonial expansion in the United States.


My Review: There's that famous saying: a picture is worth more than a thousand words. The portraits shot by Edward S. Curtis at the beginning of the 20th century are a profound look into the lives and customs of various Native tribes in the modern era. I will not use the term "Indian", as these indigenous tribes deserve more respect than that. This is my biggest complaint about this book. This term should have never been used in it and it's being used way too frequently. I know many natives are not bothered by it, but why use terms such as "Indian" or "American Indian" if they're not from India?


Aside from that, the book offers wonderful details about the Native tribes and the photographs are superb. I loved the fact the photographer acknowledged the fact that many of them did not like being photographed or were simply uncomfortable with strangers in their reservations. The photographs are so well preserved, the reader can feel those people's emotions captured by the lenses. The tribes are organized by volumes in the book and it's a delight to examine the difference in their traditional clothes and adornments. One thing that I found stunning were the portraits of mothers with babies.


Overall, without my complaint above, this book is a wonderful addition for anyone that loves history and wants to see the true early 20th century through photographs. It's not just a coffee table book, but a true history volume in images and a gift to the world from Curtis.


Publisher: ‎ Chartwell Books; Reprint edition (November 9, 2021)

Language: ‎ English

Hardcover: ‎ 256 pages

ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0785839743


Review copy provided by Quarto Group @ Edelweiss+