He was an adventurous, largely self-taught photographer with a burning drive to complete what would come to be regarded as one of the greatest anthropological projects ever attempted.
She was a single woman in a small Midwestern city who rose from the job of library clerk to become only the second female art museum director in the United States.
If they had ostensibly little in common, Edward Sheriff Curtis (Fig. 3) and Lulu Frances Miller (Fig. 2) shared this: each was a trailblazer and a maverick. Their lives intersected when Miller purchased Subscription Number 70 to Curtis’s famed photographic masterwork, The North American Indian, for the public library in Muskegon, Michigan.
Curtis’s path to that juncture began early in his life. He built his first camera at age twelve, and in 1885, at seventeen, apprenticed to a photographer in his native Wisconsin. The family moved to the Pacific Northwest and eventually settled in Seattle in 1891. There, Curtis purchased a share in a photographic studio.
On a photo-taking excursion to Mount Rainier in 1898, Curtis by chance met a group of scientists who had become lost while hiking on the dangerous and stormy slopes, and guided them to safety. He formed fast friendships with two of them: George Bird Grinnell, anthropologist and later founder of the Audubon Society, and C. Hart Merriam, zoologist and co-founder of the National Geographic Society. Through their intercession, Curtis was hired as the official photographer for railroad magnate Edward Henry (E. H.) Harriman’s grand 1899 expedition to explore the Alaskan coastline. And in 1900, Grinnell brought his friend Curtis on an extended excursion among the Piegan Blackfeet in Montana.
It was on the trip with Grinnell that Curtis conceived a plan for a great project to document the vanishing way of life of the Native American people of the continent. His vision was to photograph the tribes of North America and to publish his work over a five-to-seven-year period in twenty volumes, all to be accompanied by individual photogravures, and to be sold—and indeed, financed—through subscription.
Early in his endeavor, even as he traveled to capture events such as the Hopi Snake Dance (Fig. 1) and came to be called “Shadow Catcher” by the people he photographed, Curtis was unsure he would ever realize the grand scope of his project. He was desperate for underwriting. Despite the support of his new friend, President Teddy Roosevelt, he was turned down by the Smithsonian Institution and other museums that he approached about his work. He failed to place subscriptions even in Seattle, where sales from his studio photography couldn’t keep pace with his mounting expenses.
In 1906, things changed. With the help of Harriman, Curtis secured an appointment with one of the richest men in the world, New York banker and industrialist J. P. Morgan.1 At their meeting, Curtis presented Morgan with his proposal and a budget covering estimated annual expenses that included hotels and travel, equipment, assistants’ salaries, food for the horses and mules and crews, rental fees for wagons, pay for teamsters and translators, and funds for the equipment to produce wax cylinder recordings of tribal music. And, there was the money to be given to the Native American subjects of his photographs.
Fatefully, Curtis proposed that he would not take salary nor money for the project’s substantial production costs, confident that those expenses would be covered by subscriptions he still believed he could secure. After saying no—more than once—Morgan, moved by the photographs Curtis showed him, especially the poignant photogravure of Mosa, a young Mohave woman (Fig. 8), finally consented. The financier granted Curtis $75,000—for fieldwork only, to be paid at $15,000 a year for the following five years—a sum just over $2 million in today’s dollars,2 but not without conditions.
Curtis’s original idea? To print one hundred twenty-volume sets. Morgan countered with the idea that Curtis should do all the writing and that he should produce five hundred full sets to sell by subscription—ideas that likely did not feel like suggestions to Curtis.3 “Mr. Curtis,” Morgan said, “I like a man who attempts the impossible.”4 This agreement would come to haunt Curtis, as fewer than 250 fifty subscriptions were ever sold.
While Curtis was developing his grand vision and pitching his project, Luella “Lulu” F. Miller was turning a simple library clerk’s job into a career. She was born in Muskegon around 1874 to A. John Miller, a railroad engineer, and his wife, Mary, and graduated from the local high school in 1888. She began working at the city’s Hackley Public Library in 1892 (Fig. 4), and by 1896 had advanced to assistant librarian. On January 3, 1907, Miller was named head librarian.5 Within just a year of stepping into this role, Miller presented the Muskegon Board of Education with a proposal to acquire a subscription to The North American Indian. How she convinced the board to spend $3,000—roughly $80,000 in today’s money—is a mystery. But the library would become the first subscriber to this undertaking in the state of Michigan.6
Miller signed the contract for The North American Indian on March 26, 1908. About a week later, she received a letter back from Curtis, dated April 6, 1908, in which he wrote:
In its entirety the aim is to make the work . . . a record . . . . In a sense it might be called “Leaves from a Field Worker’s Notebook,” material which those who have not been so fortunate as to have seen the many tribes in person can make use of . . . . I particularly desire to make myself clear that it is a systematic record of the various tribes, not a treatise on the Indian subject.7
Several letters from Curtis and his assistants to Miller following the signing of the contract for this work exist, but unfortunately no correspondence has been discovered from Miller to Curtis.
Miller wasted no time in showcasing the library’s new prize. When she signed the contract for the subscription, Miller also agreed to host an exhibition of more than two hundred of Curtis’s photographs at the library, most of which he had shipped to the library for that purpose. 8 The exhibition opened on April 27, 1908, and received more than two thousand visitors in the first ten days of its display. Hailed a “great success” in an article in the local newspaper, the writer went on to say, “Not only has it attracted large numbers to view it, but many have manifested a more than ordinary interest.”9
The library, built by the Public Schools of the City of Muskegon, was named for Charles Henry Hackley, a local philanthropist who also believed in the educational value of art.10 In his 1905 will he left the Muskegon Public Schools Board of Education a trust of $150,000 for the purchase of “pictures of the best kind” to be hung in the library. The massive 1890 American Romanesque-style building proved inadequate to double as an art gallery and, in 1911, the board decided to construct a new building to house an art gallery, though it would, for its first few decades, technically be regarded as a department of the library.11
Raymond Wyer, an artist, critic, and lecturer, was hired as first director of the Hackley Art Gallery in 1912.12 Though his foresight is clear today, Wyer and his advanced view of art soon fell afoul of conservative tastes in Muskegon. His 1914 purchase of James A. M. Whistler’s Study in Rose and Brown for $6,750—about $170,000 in contemporary currency—was considered scandalously extravagant. Dogged by criticism, his decisions second-guessed, Wyer resigned in 1916. Miller, head of the library, was then tapped to direct the fledgling gallery as well.13
With that, and before women even had the right to vote, Miller became only the second female art museum director in the country, an achievement that attracted national media attention.14 (The first was Cornelia Bentley Sage Quinton of the Albright Art Gallery of Buffalo, New York, now the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.) Throughout her career at the Hackley Art Gallery, she proved no less prescient and astute with art acquisition than her predecessor, and, demonstrated by the results, to be as excellent a negotiator. Notes and letters related to her 1927 purchase of Answering the Horn by Winslow Homer (Fig. 12) suggest that Miller did diligent research to ensure she got a sound deal on the painting, with the board’s approval, from the Thurber Art Galleries of Chicago.
Miller retired in 1930. That same year, Volume 20, the final installment of The North American Indian, was delivered to the Hackley Public Library. Curtis’s epic achievement marked Miller’s career like a pair of bookends, a testament to her remarkable record of visionary public service and accomplishment.
Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian opens at the Muskegon Museum of Art on May 11, and will remain on view through September 10. The exhibition celebrates the photographer and his work’s cultural legacy, as well as the controversies that surrounded it, and presents, for what is believed to be the first time, all 723 portfolio photographs from Curtis’s masterpiece.
1 William H. Goetzmann and Kay Sloan, Looking Far North: The Harriman Expedition to Alaska, 1899 (Viking Press, New York, 1982). 2 Purchasing power calculator, www.measuringworth.com. 3 Timothy Egan, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2012), p. 109. 4 Ibid, p.114. 5 Hackley Public Library was named for Charles Hackley (1837–1905), a lumber baron and philanthropist from Muskegon. Hackley amassed a fortune of $18 million one third of which he gave to the community. His first gift, the land on which to build and $100,000 in funding, was for the construction of Hackley Public Library, given on May 25, 1888. Marilyn Verduin Andersen, Hackley Public Library: A Centennial History (M. Andersen, Hackley Public Library, and the Public Schools of the City of Muskegon, Muskegon, 1990); and Janie Lynn Panagopoulos, The Centennial Walking Tour of the Hackley Public Library (1990). 6 “$3,000 set of books for the Library Deals with American Indians,” Muskegon Chronicle, April 8, 1908. 7 Edward Curtis to Lulu Miller April 6, 1908, Muskegon Museum of Art. 8 Subscription agreement for The North American Indian, March 26, 1908, ibid. 9 “Over 2,000 See Pictures,” Muskegon Chronicle, May 5, 1908. 10 “Millions more for Muskegon in will of Charles H. Hackley, Filed Today,” Muskegon Chronicle, February 15, 1905. 11 “Building Will Be Devoted to Art Gallery: Board of Education Plans Erection of Addition to the Public Library,” ibid., August 26, 1909. Official Proceedings of the Board of Education of Muskegon Public Schools, June 11, 1911, n.p. 12 Raymond Wyer (1874–1963) trained at the Académie Delécluse and the Académie Julian in Paris, and worked for Moulton and Ricketts—importers of and dealers in foreign and American paintings, with offices in New York, Chicago, and Milwaukee that had helped assemble some of the great art collections in the Midwest—when he was hired as gallery director by the Muskegon Board of Education in 1912. Wyer later changed his surname to Henniker-Heaton, and was director of the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts from 1918 to 1925. 13 Marilyn Verduin Andersen, Pictures of the Best Kind: The First Century of the Muskegon Museum of Art (Muskegon Museum of Art, Muskegon, 2012), pp. 53–54. 14 American Art News, September 15, 1917.
CATHERINE MOTT is the curator of education for the Muskegon Museum of Art. JUDITH A. HAYNER is the executive director of the Muskegon Museum of Art.