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Edward S. Curtis Photogravures Collection

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The North American Indian by Edward Sheriff Curtis
Image: Edward S. Curtis (American, 1868 - 1952)
          Chief Garfield- Jicarilla, 1904
          Photogravure on wove paper

The North American Indian is a monumental and iconic body of early 20th-century documentary photography and print making. In 1936, Muhlenberg College received the 20-volume portfolio of large-format photogravures that supplement 20 bound volumes of text from the estate of General Harry C. Trexler. Trexler (1854 – 1933), a well-known Allentown, Pennsylvania businessman and philanthropist, had the keen foresight to collect Curtis’ series that was published, as completed, from 1907 – 1930. Although 500 sets were initially anticipated, only 272 were completed. The College has set number 135. It is currently believed there are only twenty-six complete extant sets.

Curtis began his photographic career with a successful portrait studio for Seattle’s elite. His photographic skills and love of the outdoors, coupled with the influence of American Indian authority of the period, George Bird Grinnell, eventually set the stage for Curtis’ passion to capture the fleeting idiom of the native population. The project he expected to take five years instead took nearly 30. He encountered major delays due to seasonal weather conditions, the use of cumbersome large-format cameras and glass-plate negatives, a time-consuming offset photogravure printing process and, despite substantial funding by financier J. P. Morgan, was continually strapped for money.

Of the 722 large photogravures in The North American Indian, Curtis’ portrait of Chief Garfield-Jicarilla, 1904 is typical of the large number of strikingly posed male portraits. His portraiture also meticulously recorded women, elders, comely youth, and the very young. Curtis captured visages of regal dignity, quiet stoicism, evocative sadness, and peaceful contentment. His quest took him to the tribes of the American southwest--the Apache, Mohave and Jicarilla, to the Yakima, Nootka, and Nunivak in the far northwest and Alaska and to the Piegan, Cheyenne, Hidatsa, and Teton Sioux, east of the Rockies.

Besides a wealth of portraiture, Curtis documented daily routines, tribal rituals, hand-crafted objects, living spaces and environments. The end result is an incomparable ethnographic study that provides rich information for scholars and art lovers alike.


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