Sisters author explores legacy of legendary photographer


Last updated 12/12/2023 at 10:04am

Anyone with the slightest interest in the American West or Native American culture is familiar with the work of Edward S. Curtis. His work adorns the walls and bookshelves of many a home in Sisters - and across the globe.

Yet few are familiar with the arduous 30-year quest Curtis embarked upon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to document the people and cultures of North America's native population. The result was a 22-volume portfolio and book titled "The North American Indian," with over 2,200 photogravures (copper plate prints) and 2.5 million words of ethnographic texts on 80 Western tribes.

Curtis' journey and the resulting treasure trove of work is the subject of the latest publication by Dr. Larry Len Peterson of Sisters. Peterson, an award-winning physician and scientist of dermatology, has won renown for his extraordinary coffeetable books on Western artists Charles M. Russell and Phillip R. Goodwin, and for his highly regarded "American Trinity: Jefferson, Custer, and the Spirit of the West."

"Edward S. Curtis: Printing the Legends" is now available for preorder, and it marks another high point in Peterson's documentation of the important figures in Western art.

"I've known about Curtis for probably 40 years," Peterson told The Nugget.

Among the many artists whose work the scholar and collector has explored - including legends like Russell - Peterson considers Curtis "the most consequential." The scope of his work is breathtaking - and exceptional.

In his introduction to "Printing the Legends," Peterson notes that most photographers in Curtis' era focused on the peoples of the American Southwest and the northern plains, ignoring other peoples entirely. Curtis went to extraordinary lengths to photograph a wide range of peoples.

"Curtis was the only artist who recorded a wide swath of the Indigenous people living in the American and Canadian West," Peterson writes. "That alone is a monumental achievement."

Peterson calls Curtis' near-obsessive effort "the biggest photojournalistic undertaking of all time. If you look at his images, there's nothing like it."

The image that Peterson chose for the cover of the book holds particular meaning for him.

"I have a few Curtis original photographs and that's the first one I bought," he said. "I consider it his best."

In recent years, as every aspect of America's westward expansion is being reassessed, Curtis' reputation has come under scrutiny. Curtis is regarded as having romanticized his subjects and failed to grapple with the conditions that Native Americans were actually living under at the time he created his art. This, for some, calls into question the "truthfulness" of his images.

Ellie Gascoigne of the Photography Ethics Center writes that, "instead of depicting Native American tribes as they actually were in 1898, Curtis ultimately froze them in a past that no longer existed."

Peterson addresses those criticisms, and puts them into context.

Curtis was enamored of the school of art and photography known as Pictorialism - which was, indeed, self-consciously romantic, and depicted beautiful people in beautiful settings, making a photograph appear like a painting. The sepia tone of Curtis' photogravures is a key element of his manifestation of this style.

Peterson notes that criticism of Curtis for the way his subjects are "dressed up" misses a key point:

"Ninety percent of the people, he just asked them to come (to be photographed) in their Sunday

finest," he said. "Even in my childhood, if you went to get a photo taken, you wore nice clothes. It was a more formal time back then."

Curtis' photographs are, without question, artful - which is why they remain so impactful to this day.

"Curtis proved that the biggest component of a camera is the guy taking the picture," Peterson said.

While romanticism is certainly a component of his work, Peterson believes Curtis captured something ineffable that contributes to the durability of his vision.

"He was able to identify a dignity in the Native American that others weren't even looking for," he said.

Peterson believes that the viewer can see the Indians' pride in their ancestry come through the photographs - and there is a spark of hope in what was a dark time for them.

Creating a book that does justice to Curtis' photography is a challenge in and of itself. Peterson has learned a great deal over a couple of decades of compiling and producing art books.

"My ability to put these books together has improved exponentially," he told The Nugget.

The critical element is attention to detail.

"First off, it's wanting to present somebody's art in the best way I can so that people can feel the emotional connection to the art," Peterson said. "Color reproduction and image size are critical in art books."

Sisters photographer Dennis Schmidling photographed original photogravures for reproduction. There were multiple rounds of communication between the printer and a graphic designer to get the color correction nailed down so that everything would reproduce correctly.

The book is printed on wood-free paper made of silk and coated in marble from Garda, Italy. This very high-end paper facilitates the best possible reproduction. The end product is a magnificent six-pound tome of heirloom quality.

In his introduction, Peterson extolls the power of Curtis' art:

"His pictures inspire awe not just because they are outstanding, but because they transport us to a moment of truth when we also see that they consist, in Darwin's words, of 'form most beautiful.' But to be great, they also have to strike us with the truth that we are all connected in our common humanity."

"Edward S. Curtis: Printing the Legends" is available for preorder in hardcover at online sellers from Farcountry Press at 800-821-3874,, and can be preordered through local bookstores.

Peterson expects delivery in January.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

Author photo

Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit


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