In 1906, photographer Edward S. Curtis set out to photograph North American aboriginal peoples in order to document their way of life, which many feared would disappear altogether.
Many of the 40,000 images he collected over the next 24 years are familiar to us – especially his staged portraits of proud First Nations people sporting their headdresses and wearing the fine embroidery or beadwork of their tribes.
The McCord Museum, Montreal’s history museum, is showing a selection of photogravure images, from the 20 volumes Curtis put together under the name, The North American Indian. The images come from the museum's own collection — a donor gave a collection of Curtis images she inherited from her father-in-law.
Wisconsin-born Curtis had been a society photographer, and he has been criticized for the staginess of his portraits of native people. But his encyclopedia with 2,200 photos and accompanying text has come to be seen as a valuable record of First Nations traditions.
"He was working with admiration; he worked for posterity. He wanted to keep the memory," says McCord Museum curator Helen Samson.
Native life was changing in the early 20th century and many people had donned modern clothes, but agreed to show off the old ways for a photographer.
"Without Curtis, we wouldn't have these pictures of the people, the traditions, the land, the material artefacts," Samson told CBC News. "It's an aesthetic and ethnologic document that is unbelievable, incomparable to the history of the aboriginals."
The iconic image of the Navajo horses going into the sunset was used on the cover of the novel by Zane Grey called The Vanishing American. It also helped set an image of Old West life that was recreated in dozens of movies.
"There is a funeral tone in the whole work of Curtis, because he was taking the last images of what was called at that time 'the vanishing race.' People were thinking that the red people were doomed to die," said Andre Dudemaine, director of Montreal's First Peoples Festival.
Curtis learned native languages, studied native customs and took part in initiation rituals, becoming well accepted among people of the time and earning the name Shadow Catcher. He also acted as an advocate, trying to raise money from philanthropists to preserve or record dying customs.
So while his photos reflect the prejudices of his day, he did have a "special connection" to real people, Dudemaine said.
"And what speaks to me most are the eyes. People look in the lens directly. ....It is this frontal portrait and those people look at you and you have in those eyes the soul of the native people."
Edward Curtis: Beyond Measure is showing at the McCord Museum in Montreal until Nov. 18.