Thanks to a group of culture-minded business folk in Iowa, 40 original photogravures from Edward S. Curtis’ epic work, “The North American Indian,” are on display at Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher building through May 10.
Curtis, whose family moved to Washington Territory from the upper Midwest when he was a young man, owned and ran a photography studio in Seattle before spending three decades documenting more than 80 tribes west of the Mississippi.
Curtis ended up producing more than 40,000 images and thousands of pages of ethnographic text, the basis for his lifelong project, “The North American Indian,” whose 20 volumes came out from 1907 to 1930.
“The Curtis show is absolutely amazing,” said Barbara Matilsky, curator of art at Whatcom Museum.
The show is a traveling exhibit organized by the Dubuque Museum of Art, in Iowa.
Dubuque’s copy of “The North American Indian” was an original subscription set – number 119 out of the initial 272 – that was given to a public library there in 1909 by the widow of a prominent Dubuque and Washington, D.C., attorney, said Stacy Peterson, collections and exhibitions manager at the Dubuque museum.
Each volume consisted of a leather-bound book of text that focused on specific tribes, with a set of about 30 large-format photogravures of images related to the tribes and printed on high-quality paper, Peterson explained in an email.
The complete collection remained at the Dubuque library until 1999, when the photogravure portion, 722 in total, was moved to the Dubuque Museum of Art for safekeeping, Peterson said. Forty of those photogravures form the basis of the exhibit at Whatcom Museum.
When the Dubuque library considered selling the Curtis collection to raise money for renovations, a group of businesspeople called the Dubuque Cultural Preservation Committee bought the collection in 2008 and donated it to their local art museum.
The Whatcom Museum exhibit includes Curtis’ early photograph of Princess Angeline, the elderly daughter of Chief Sealth. The portrait won the top prize in a photography contest and helped launch his career, ultimately leading to his mission – backed by industrialist J.P. Morgan – to document what Curtis considered to be the vanishing heritage of Native American people.
The Whatcom Museum display also includes volume nine of Curtis’ 20-volume set, the volume that focuses on the coastal Salishan tribes and other Pacific Northwest Indians.
Curtis died in Los Angeles in 1952, broke, in poor health, and separated from his wife after a bitter divorce. The resurrection of interest in, and appreciation for, his work came decades after his death.
In connection with the exhibit, Seattle author Timothy Egan will speak at Mount Baker Theatre at 7 p.m. April 27. Egan’s best-selling books include “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher; The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.” Egan’s free talk is hosted by Whatcom Museum, Bellingham Public Library and Village Books.
Whatcom Museum exhibit
What: “Mingled Visions: Images from ‘The North American Indian’ by Edward S. Curtis,” through May 10.
Where: Lightcatcher building, 205 Flora St.
Details: 360-778-8930 or whatcommuseum.org.
Timothy Egan talk
What: The best-selling author of “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher” discusses the life and work of Edward S. Curtis. Free admission.
When: 7 p.m. Monday, April 27.
Where: Mount Baker Theatre, 104 N. Commercial St.
Edward Curtis online
Edward S. Curtis’ “The North American Indian” can be viewed online at Northwestern University. Go to northwestern.edu and search for Edward S. Curtis.