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He was a skilled photographer and naive Seattle businessman with a sixth-grade education and a burning desire to document what he believed was “a vanishing race.” She was a small-town Michigan librarian, who, in the early 1900s — before women even had the right to vote — convinced her library board to invest $3,000 in the Indiana Jones-style quest of a man she never met.

Librarian Lulu Miller’s visionary 1907 investment, the equivalent of around $80,000 today, bought Muskegon one of just 222 subscriptions to Edward Curtis’ life’s work: a 20-volume set of iconic, sometimes controversial images of Geronimo, Chief Joseph and other historical figures. More than 30 years in the making, it influenced how the nation has viewed Native-Americans for over a century.

This summer, the Muskegon Museum of Art dipped into its storage vault to show “Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian,” an exhibit that displays, for the first time, all 723 photogravures — fine art intaglio-printed photographs — from the project’s world-famous portfolios.

Running through Sept. 10, it’s the largest, most comprehensive look at the life and ambitious work of Curtis, who lived among 82 tribes west of the Missouri River over a period of more than 30 years, ruining his marriage, health and finances in the process. He photographed everything from routine daily activities — fishing, farming, firing pots — to the Hopi Snake Dance and the High Plains Sun Dance, sacred ceremonies performed in secret, according to the exhibit’s guest curator, Ben Mitchell, after they were outlawed by the federal government.

Curtis’ wax-cylinder recordings of traditional Native music, chants and some languages, made in the field, supplement the exhibit’s stunning portraits, Western landscapes and texts. There’s also a feature film he produced about the Kwakiutl tribe, plus maps, timelines and Native-American artifacts from the Grand Rapids Public Museum. And the controversy over Curtis’ legacy and methods is not ignored: an entire section is devoted to the photographer’s use at times of costumes and staging to present a romanticized version of Native-Americans before the clash with Anglo culture.

“The exhibit is a big deal for our small museum,” says Judith Hayner, the Muskegon Museum of Art’s executive director, citing record crowds in the two months since “The North American Indian” opened.

Located in downtown Muskegon, the art museum has welcomed more than 10,000 visitors from 33 states and 12 countries — from Australia and Ireland to Russia and Zimbabwe, she says. The exhibit is open seven days a week, including Labor Day, with free admission from 4-8 p.m. on Thursdays.

Since the 1970s, there has been a huge revival of interest in Curtis, but his work wasn’t always popular, Hayner says. Though he was recognized as one of the most prominent photographers of his time and his project enjoyed support early on from President Theodore Roosevelt and financier J.P. Morgan, Curtis died in obscurity, virtually penniless. By the time the 20th and final volume of “The North American Indian” was delivered in 1930, times and tastes had changed so dramatically that his work was largely ignored.

For Curtis, it was a tragic turn from the hoopla that greeted publication of his first volume in 1907. It received rave reviews throughout the United States and in major European newspapers and journals. The New York Herald called the project, “The most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible.”

Still, fewer than half of the 500 projected sets were printed; Muskegon’s subscription was #70. And now, thanks to the city’s long-ago librarian, Miller, who went on to head Muskegon’s art gallery (and was only the second female art museum director in the nation), today’s museumgoers may judge Curtis’ work for themselves.

Several Muskegon-area arts and cultural organizations are staging plays, powwows and other events in conjunction with the Curtis exhibit. Among them is a special Aug. 24 screening of “Coming to Light,” an Academy Award-finalist for best documentary in 2001.

The film explores the Native-Americans depicted in Curtis’ haunting images through the eyes of their descendants. It was written, directed and produced by Anne Makepeace, who will lead a discussion on his legacy.

Susan Pollack is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

If you go

“Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian”

Through Sept. 10

Muskegon Museum of Art

296 W. Webster Ave., Muskegon.

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays, with free admission from 4-8 p.m.

Adults, $10; students 17 and older with I.D., $7; children 16 and younger, free. Thanks to reciprocal membership privileges, members of the Detroit Institute of Arts receive free admission.

muskegonartmuseum.org

Images from “The North American Indian” have been digitized and may be viewed online at Curtis.library.northwestern.edu

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