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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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The 1899 Expedition
The 1899
Expedition


 

Original Participants
Original
Participants

Brief Chronology
Brief
Chronology

Science Aboard the Elder
Science
Aboard the
Elder

History of Exploration
Exploration &
Settlement

Development Along Alaska's Coast
Growth Along Alaska's Coast

Alaska Native Communities
Alaska
Natives

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Edward Curtis

1868 - 1952


Edward Curtis

Edward Curtis
It was only by chance that the photographer Edward Curtis was invited with the Harriman Expedition to Alaska. He was, after all, a struggling studio photographer in Seattle, with no reputation, and no published photographs of nature. But in 1897 Curtis was hiking on Mt. Rainier on the very same day as C. Hart Merriam and George Bird Grinnell. Curtis came upon the two men, who were obviously lost. He guided them to safety, then brought them back to his Seattle studio and showed them hundreds of nature photographs that he had taken as a hobby. Two years later, both Merriam and Grinnell remembered the Seattle photographer who'd helped them on Rainier. Curtis, and his assistant, D.G. Inverarity, were invited to join the expedition.

Curtis went to Alaska thrilled with the prospect of making pictures in such a grand landscape. On the trip, he captured thousands of images, working with the cumbersome equipment of the day. He went to great lengths to get his pictures; at one time, he nearly capsized in a small boat that floated too near a calving glacier. He took over 5000 photographs on the expedition.

Curtis came to Alaska with preconceptions about Native Americans that were typical of his time, but on the trip he was much influenced by George Bird Grinnell, a man who had spent years among the tribes of the American West. Curtis realized that Native peoples in North America were changing, even vanishing. He decided that he had a tiny window of time to create a permanent record of a people who had yet to face the juggernaut of Western Civilization.

When the trip was over, Curtis used the connections he'd made to seek patrons for further photographic studies of Native peoples. The millionaire J. P. Morgan sponsored Curtis's monumental twenty volume work, The North American Indian. But the fashion for Indian photographs faded even before the books were published and Curtis began a decline into obscurity. Plagued by debts and poor health, he continued to document the lives of Indians. For a time, he supported himself by filming and photographing in Hollywood, but with little success. After his death in 1952, much of his work gathered dust in archives and attics; the few pieces exhibited were derided for their manipulated images and overly romantic views. More recently, though, his work has been re-evaluated, and it is in demand again. The rare surviving sets of The North American Indian sell for well over $100,000.

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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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