My Favorite Photographer – Edward Curtis

In a lot of interviews lately, people ask me about my artistic influences. Besides the great Impressionists, my favorite photographer is Edward S. Curtis. After responding, I notice that many people have not heard of him. That’s understandable, I suppose. So I decided to put together this little page to show off some of his work that I find to be the most compelling.

He was born in 1868. I can’t imagine what it was like to be a photographer back then. Those guys were hardcore, and Curtis was especially so. He lived with American Indians for months on end with all of his equipment and had to keep everything in perfect working condition. It’s amazing!

Curtis collected over 40,000 images from 80 tribes. In his first volume he wrote, “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.” Besides all the images, he also made 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of their language and music. What a guy!

Get this. This is wild. His wife divorced him in 1919. She got his studio and original camera negatives in the settlement. To spite her, Curtis went with his daughter to the studio and destroyed all the original glass negatives! He didn’t want them getting into the hands of his ex.

Below are some of his best images, in my opinion. I own a print of the first one. It’s called “Waiting in the Forest – Cheyenne” and it was taken in 1910. The official description describes the scene: “At dusk in the neighborhood of the large encampments young men closely wrapped in non-committal blankets or white cotton sheets, may be seen gliding about the tipis or standing motionless in the shadow of trees, each alert for the opportunity to steal a meeting with his sweetheart.”

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Edward S. Curtis, Sioux Chiefs

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  • Beautiful work.

  • wow, I can see why he is one of your favorites!! Awesome stuff, and to think he took these over 100 years ago makes it all the more amazing.

  • Thank you, I am both in awe of Curtis’ work and of his subjects.
    May they be preserved in American Culture forever.

  • Amen to what Cindy said above. I know I have seen some of his pictures, probably in museums. They are awesome when you think about the time when he was alive!!! Thanks so much for sharing, Trey!!! I will bookmark this page and research him on the net.

  • Facebook User

    Great selection of Curtis’s work. I was fortunate enough to see some of his work earlier this year at a special exhibit at MoMA in NYC called “Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West”. Thanks for sharing.

  • Interesting tidbits on Curtis’ life….and the photographs are truly something to behold. Thanks for educating us about this master.

  • Curtis is a fav here, too. You rock!

  • casusan

    Your right, he was amazing and inspiring! Great collection!

  • Thanks so much for posting this. His work is breathtaking. I am now off to do more research on him.

  • Some iconic stuff there.

  • Cool – glad you guys like it…

    An interesting footnote is that he got in trouble for “doctoring” some of his photos. He wanted to portray the Indians in their natural state… and sometimes, when he took the photos in 1910 and such, there were modern things around. In one photo, there was a “clock”. He removed it (how you remove stuff with stamp/clone before photoshop must be quite difficult) because he thought it took away from the pic. I don’t have a problem with any of that… I don’t want to see clocks in my indian pics either!

  • Trey, thank you for sharing these powerful, iconic images from one of photography’s great masters. It’s interesting to know he doctored some of his work, as most old-time photographers did in the darkroom to one degree or another. It was their Photoshop.

  • This is incredible. Can you imagine the work this took for this guy to take these pictures? Taking care of the film (or whatever it was) developing, introducing this to the people and making them understand? Metering light? he didnt get to shoot and then look down at his LCD to see if it came out right, he had to make each shot count. I love old photos like this. These photographers really new what they were doing.

    My uncle was Basil Edwin Clemons who was famous in the 1910’s-1930’s for being the first photographer to photograph Alaska from the air. He then followed a circus sideshow around the country, until returning to Breckinridge, TX in the 30’s to freelance. That entire town became a town because that is what made towns back then. If your town had someone who knew how to take a picture, then your town could market itself, hit the news, and make some money.

    Im rambling, but you can check out some info about him here:

    Thanks for reading all that! Trey inspired me!

    -Taylor Mahaffey | Photography

  • Nick

    Oh man, I know! Curtis is my favorite turn of the century era photographer too, and so many haven’t heard of him for some reason….

    Same thing with Darius Kinsey. Many people have seen his iconic shots of Northwest loggers, but don’t know him by name.

    just for fun, I correl paintered one of Curtis’s shots a while back:

  • Nick
  • He was amazing, did you know he had a younger brother, Asahel(sp?) also a photographer

  • Joseph Taggart

    Good stuff. I always thought I was pretty informed about older photographers, but I’ve never heard of Edward Curtis. Thanks!!

  • Curtis has been a long time fascination with me. I discovered him about 10+ years ago when spending Xmas in Santa Fe. I was overcome by hundreds of his photos, framed, in Rainbow Man off the square. Many were done with the gold metallic finish, which I was not a fan of, but my parents were and purchased a limited edition of one of those above (one of my personal favorites) 15th from the top, but I cannot remember the name.

    I learned all about what he was hired to do by JP Morgan and how he went about living with different tribes to gain trust and therefore have access to certain rituals that they allowed him to photograph.

    I went to a gallery in Santa Fe where the owner had several limited editions as well as almost all of the original photogravures found in the basement of the old building in Boston. This is what enabled him to print the limited editions. He even had gained access to “some” of the original paper that JP Morgan had provided Curtis with, but those, of course, were much more expensive.

    I have been unable to decide which I want to purchase of the limited editions for some time now, but I find most of his images both haunting as well as hypnotic. There are so many that I can stare at for hours. One of my favorites is also in the grouping above, the lone Indian on horseback.

    It troubles me that so many photographers of his time and now do not give him credit for being a “true” photographer like that of Ansel Adams or Stieglitz b/c many of the portraits he did were posed. He used clothing that was from an older time and portrayed his subjects as coming from an earlier time. During the periods of time that he lived with them, they were already wearing modern day clothing.

    To me, that is preposterous as his technique and grasp of what it had to have been like is truly captured in his photography. And isnt that what art is about anyway? Emoting? Getting the viewer to feel or react, whether its a positive or negative emotion? I am not an artist, but I know enough about art to make me a little dangerous 🙂 And what I do know is that Curtis is highly underrated and way too “unknown”.

    A friend of mine is a photographer living in San Miguel de Allende now and is a huge fan, and besides you, I have found few that have heard of him (this includes art aficionados as well as photographers). I hope he gets more noticed, but not too much more before I make a few purchases :).

    Thank you for allowing us to chime in with our opinions! Your art is fantastic and after my Curtis purchase, you are next on my list 🙂

  • John Kaiser

    I also am a great fan of Edward Curtis. In fact, I have a couple of presets attempting to duplicate the deep brown tones of many of his images. My favorite… Canyon De Chelly.

  • Miranda S-G


    I’m an English Major at West Chester University, and am currently taking a seminar class on the boundaries of fact and fiction in historical fiction and poetry. We just finished reading Marianne Wiggins’ novel “Shadow Catcher”, a work largely focused on the life and art of Edward S. Curtis, and are now working on our final research assignments based upon the book. What I’m wondering is where you found the information about Clara’s divorce settlement and Edward’s destruction of the glass plates. My paper’s focusing on his private life as opposed to the image he presented to the public (haaaaa pun), and in all my searching I’ve yet to stumble onto anything about his ruining his own materials just so she could not profit from it. If you could tell me where you read/learned that, it would be truly wonderful, because it sounds like such a source is exactly relevant to my work.

    Thank you,
    – Miranda

  • Jeff Welker

    As a life long resident of Arizona, I’ve always appreciated Edward Curtis’ work; especially his images of the west. Whenever, I start complaining about the weight/bulk of my equipment, I remind myself of what Curtis endured with his glass plates and large cameras. While modern by comparison, I also enjoy the work of Barry Goldwater. The former Arizona senator and presidential candidate was a photographer first. Thanks for the reminder on Curtis.

  • Chris

    I stopped at an estate sale last weekend and there was a framed picture that was in really poor shape. The glass was cracked and there was some water damage but the picture was haunting so I bought it for 25 dollars. The print was glued to a white backing and someone had written “weasel tail” then some sort of nateve characters. The guy claims his friend found it in the walls of a shed he was tearing down and took it to a museum. They wouldn’g give him any money, only offered him a tax credit…so it ended up in the estate sale. As we were driving away the guy did say some thing about Kurtis. But I thought he might have been referring to the guy who owned the picture. When I got home I typed in Weasel Tail and found out it is a Edward S. Curtis from 1900. I’m not sure how old it is and for all I know it’s a modern reprint made to look out and the guy who sold it to me has a whole garage full of these thing. But the native written characters on the bottom are a nice touch if it is indeed a hoax. If someone tells me how to link a picture to this site I’d love to show it to you guys.

  • Jeremy

    If you ever happen to be in Norman, OK stop by the OU library, in the Western History Collection they have a rare multi-volume portfolio of Edward Curtis stuff. I know you live in austin and all but…. Boomer! (Our campus has lots of pretty places to take pictures also)

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  • Hey would you mind letting me know which webhost you’re working with? I’ve loaded your blog in 3 different web browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot quicker then most. Can you recommend a good internet hosting provider at a reasonable price? Cheers, I appreciate it!

  • Stephen Billings

    John I have a Canyon De Chelly and am looking to sell it in the original frame. Contact me by email at [email protected]

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  • nancy from MI

    I just got back from Muskegon Museum of Art (Muskegon MI) which was an original subscriber and owns a full 20 volume subscription of Curtis’ work. They were displaying 726 of his portfolio works which were included with each volume printed. FANTASTIC. This should be a permanent collection displayed, but in Sept it will be returned to the vaulted storage to protect them. They also have his camera, but I could not find out how much this huge behomoth weighed that he often backpacked in the early years to site locations Anybody know??

  • Stu – SIC

    That sounds super cool! 🙂

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