About The Descendants Project
The Descendants of Edward S. Curtis’ photographs of Indigenous Peoples have powerful voices to be heard –messages of survival, strength, and resistance. Their stories tell of paths that celebrate their Native heritage and cultures. The Descendants Project™ highlights these stories in their voices, linking the past, present, and future.
Jeff Smith, Makah, © Curtis Legacy Foundation 2019
Edward S. Curtis photographed Native Americans in the early 1900s and produced a 20-volume encyclopedia documenting their complete culture: crafts, songs, spirituality, and language. As the great-grandson of Edward Sherriff Curtis, I, along with my wife Coleen, am continuing his work, “to make them live forever.” My family and I passionately value Native cultures and want to carry forward the family legacy. The Descendants and the Curtis family share an amazing history, one of mutual respect, friendship, and storytelling.
We are photographing these Descendants with 19th-century camera equipment, similar to Curtis’ camera. By using a 6.5 x 8.5” camera and dry plate glass negatives, we obtain the “Curtis” look and feel to our portraits. Occasionally though, the large format camera is not feasible to get the image that tells the Descendants’ stories, so current technology is then used.
As in Curtis’ work, we are not just about the photographs. Our images support their stories, bringing visual realities to their words and voices. Do they live their culture? What traditions do they practice? What are their thoughts and concerns for their People and their future? We want to hear their stories and share them with others so that we all have a better understanding of what it means to be Indigenous People in this land, in these times.
We will share their voices by publishing one or more books about the Descendants and by organizing exhibits at tribal centers, libraries, museums, and art galleries.
Principal photography began in the fall of 2018 and will be completed fall of 2021. Gallery showings and presentations will begin as soon as enough material is gathered.
Ken Workman, Duwamish, © Curtis Legacy Foundation, 2019
John and Coleen Graybill live in Buena Vista, Colorado, located high in the Rocky Mountains surrounded by 14,000’ peaks. John is the great-grandson of Edward Curtis and the only current member of the family with the photography gene. John grew up in a home filled with Curtis photogravures hanging on the walls; to him it was just an everyday event. It never crossed his mind to do anything more with his Curtis roots, until Coleen volunteered him to speak to their professional photography group. While doing the research for his presentation, he fell in love with his great-grandfather that he never got to meet and his legendary work.
John and Coleen have begun the journey they are calling the Descendants Project. John, as a direct Descendant of Edward Curtis, will search for the Descendants of Edward Curtis’ epic photographs. They will interview and photograph those Descendants that wish to participate, providing a vehicle for Natives to say in their voice, what it means to them to be Native American in the 21st century.
Walking in Curtis’ footsteps even more, they are photographing them much the same way Curtis did, with a large format camera and processing the 6.5×8.5” glass dry plate negatives themselves. They have even come up with a portable portrait tent; enabling them to also get those same classic Rembrandt lit portraits. They insist that their new Descendants images have the same look and feel as Curtis’ did.
John and Coleen have photographed several Descendants so far, with many more coming soon. You can follow their travels most closely by signing up for our newsletter or following us on Facebook or Instagram.
John got his photography degree at the Rhode Island School of Photography in 1979. Following a quick panic after graduation as a starving artist, John ended up with a 29 year career managing Midas stores and then 7 years as an Apple Genius. John retired from the corporate world. He now enjoys photographing along side his wife, a 30 year veteran as a professional portrait and fine art photographer.
Coleen is a Master Photographer and Certified Professional Photographer through the Professional Photographers of America and has won international awards for both her portrait and landscape work. She was a portrait/wedding photographer for over 26 years, and then started concentrating on scenic/fine art images after she and John married. She too, is excited to apply her talents to their Descendants Project and bring attention to the amazing stories of Native Americans. The Curtis bug has bitten her hard!