TU President Steadman Upham records history and culture in 'The Many Faces of Edward Sherriff Curtis'
In their book, The Many Faces of Edward Sherriff Curtis, Steadman Upham, president of The University of Tulsa and a noted anthropology scholar, and Nat Zappia examined 80 of Edward Sherriff Curtis’ portraits within three contexts: the Native American in U.S. history, the history of Native peoples worldwide during the same period, and the individual subjects, whose portraits are arranged from youngest to oldest.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Edward Sherriff Curtis, an anthropologist and photographer, was determined to preserve Native American history and culture as the government was forcing Native Americans onto reservations and forever altering their way of life.
Edward Sherriff Curtis spent more than 40 years photographing and documenting the Native peoples of North America, taking more than 40,000 photographs and amassing a staggering archive of documentary material about North American tribes and social groups. While many books have explored the artistic value of the images he created, The Many Faces of Edward Sherriff Curtis assesses his contributions to the field of anthropology.
Through his portrait photography, Curtis pursued his mission to chronicle the lives and culture of Native Americans before contact with the white man. He was fascinated by the tradition, lore, and lifestyle of these cultures and worked to maintain their history.
"The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other,” Curtis once said. “Consequently, the information must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time."
Upham became acquainted with Edward Curtis' grandson and found he had a huge repository of his grandfather's glass and cellulose negatives.
"One thing led to another, and we began a systematic effort to document this collection. Many of the negatives in his possession had never been printed before,” Upham noted. "There is nothing easy about these images. This was a time of forced relocation, forced schooling, and the systematic eradication of the basic elements of their native culture. You can see it in their faces -- but their spirit lives on."
In addition to the publication of Upham’s book, the exhibition The Many Faces of Edward Sherriff Curtis opened at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa on December 9, 2006.
The exhibition showcased 88 photographs, five photo murals, several books, charts, and a flipbook of Curtis’ photographs. The majority of the images were portraits of Native Americans that reveal their involvement in U.S. history, particularly during the late nineteenth century, as well as tell the story of the individuals in the photographs.