Ken Gonzales-Day, Scripps College
Forced to take care of the family at an early age, Curtis dropped out of school by age twelve and had no formal training in art, photography or anthropology. He bought and built his first camera, using a lens his father had brought back from the Civil War. In Washington, his interest in photography had only increased and he purchased his first 14 x 17 inch view camera; he then mortgaged the family homestead to buy a $150 dollar share in a photographic studio with a Mr. Rasmus Roti in Seattle in 1891. A year after that, he married his sweetheart, Clara Philips and went in on a new portrait studio with a Mr. Thomas Guptill. The studio did well and they received critical recognition for their photographic work. In 1895, his younger brother, Asahel Curtis started working in the studio. Edward and Clara had their first son in 1893, then a second child, followed by a third two years later, and a fourth in 1909. Clara, and indeed many of his family members helped out in the studio at various times, eventually his daughter, Beth takes the helm as Edward becomes more involved in working on The North American Indian and spends increasing amounts of time away from home.
In 1896, Curtis takes his first images of a Native American, which will be exhibited the following year, and will later be included in The North American Indian. The photograph was of “Princess Angeline” (circa 1820 – 1896) or Kick-is-om-lo as she would have been called in her native language of Lushootseed. She was the eldest daughter of Chief Si'ahl, or Chief Seattle, and like Pocahontas was credited with saving the white man in a popular poem.
The edict of the red man "Man-a-loose" (to kill)
The white man, she in her soul did will
To change; and hidden low in a canoe
Came o'er the waters of the bay so blue
To warn the white man of his danger, -
Since then to none has she been a stranger!
The use of the term “Princess” was a popular American fiction that drew on a European model of royal blood lines, a concept that had no parallel in Native American social structure and was an extension of the image of the Noble Savage, which mostly served to distract non-Natives from the many hardships and injustices that faced Native American communities.
Princess Angeline was a well-known figure in Seattle because she had refused to leave the city, despite the fact that the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, had specifically stated that all Duwamish Indians had to relocate to reservations outside of Seattle. She refused to go, and lived in a small cabin or shack on the waterfront near Western Avenue between Pike and Pine streets. She was said to have earned a living as a laundress or selling baskets, but this was probably long before Curtis photographed her. He photographed her a year before her death and characterized her as a “digger and dealer of clams” and explained that he paid her one dollar for each photograph he took. The fact that he paid so many of his Native models to pose will later undermine the scientific truth claims of his images. For example, among the Piegan (Blackfeet of Montana), he was allowed to witness the Sun Dance but could not photograph it and was only allowed to shoot portraits of those willing to pose for a negotiated price.
Princess Angeline possibly also appeared as a hunched silhouette in the "Mussel Gatherer" and "Clam Digger," but her face is not visible. Depicted along the shores of the Puget Sound collecting clams, Curtis also managed to convince her to visit his studio and pose for his first formal portrait of a Native American. After all, he made his living photographing Seattle’s most prominent residents. In the image she appears closely cropped against a blank background and is wrapped in a blanket or shawl. Her hair is covered by a patterned scarf, and she stairs somewhat blankly out of the frame. This is due in part because her eyes remain in shadow and barely register as more than two dark shapes. The top of her cane is visible at the bottom of the frame and suggests something of her frailty. Hardly an exceptional portrait on a formal level, it would nevertheless trigger his growing interest in Native Americans, and set him down a path that would forever change his life.