“It’s such a big dream, I can’t see it all” – Edward S. Curtis
These words may have been the most profound Edward S. Curtis ever wrote. They were addressed to noted anthropologist George Bird Grinnell over one hundred years ago, shortly after what was to be the defining experience of Curtis’s life. In the summer of 1900, Curtis first encountered American Indian culture in a state relatively unaltered by contact with Europeans. He witnessed one of the last performances of the Sun Dance ceremony and was given access to the sacred lives of numerous American Indians.
“An Oasis in the Badlands”
The coalescence of these three events created a profound shock wave that affected the very foundation of Curtis’s life, his values, and his beliefs. Having become deeply impassioned by the power and dignity of the American Indian, Curtis began to realize for the first time that he might create a record preserving the history of these magnificent people and their extraordinary culture. In the same letter to Grinnell, Curtis went on to say, “But I can start-and sell prints of my pictures as I go along. I’m a poor man, but I’ve got my health, plenty of steam, and something to work for.” Curtis was thirty-two years old, with a family and a thriving business. His willingness to put at risk everything he had worked for up until then is a testament to his enlightened view of humanity, the strength of his individualism, and his creative genius.
Thus, beginning at the turn of the century, the seeds of one man’s inspiration ultimately grew into an immutable resolve to produce an indelible and irreplaceable record of American Indian culture at a time when it was in serious decline. Yet Curtis had no way of knowing that he was about to embark on a thirty-year odyssey that would have unforeseen tragic consequences; his wife would divorce him, and he would lose his family, his financial success, and his physical and emotional health-all in the pursuit of his big dream.
With the assistance and patronage of several preeminent individuals, including J. P. Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, and the kings of both England and Belgium, Curtis succeeded in creating a photo – ethnographic study that was widely hailed as the finest set of limited – edition books ever made in America. During this thirty-year project, Curtis made forty-five to fifty thousand negatives, many of them on glass and some as large as fourteen by seventeen inches. He produced ten thousand wax cylinder recordings of Native languages and music and filmed the first, and some of the most extensive, moving-picture footage ever made of American Indians. All of this culminated in his magnum opus, The North American Indian: a twenty-volume, twenty-portfolio set of books hand – bound in leather, with hand-set letter press text and hand -pulled photogravure prints, all printed on handmade, imported etching stock.
The North American Indian contained more than 2,200 original photographs, printed in photogravure, and nearly 4,000 pages of anthropological text including transcriptions of language and music. Each set included twenty quarto-size volumes containing approximately seventy-five original photogravures and two hundred pages of text. The volumes were supplemented by bound portfolios, each containing approximately thirty-six oversize gravures on eighteen-by-twenty-two-inch etching stock. Curtis offered subscribers their choice of three premium handmade papers: Dutch Van Gelder, Japanese Vellum, and India Proof Paper (commonly known as tissue).
Curtis believed the project would take him five to seven years; instead it took a quarter of a century. In today’s dollars, it required nearly thirty-five million dollars to complete the project to the standards and specifications established by Curtis and his principal supporter, J. P. Morgan. A number of the original, complete sets of The North American Indian still exist and can be found in public and private collections both in the United States and Europe.
Interest in Curtis’ work has grown dramatically over the past several decades. A benchmark of this renaissance is the value placed on exceptionally rare complete sets of The North American Indian, such as those on the premium tissue paper and some with extraordinary provenance. Today they are worth more than $I million, nearly two thousand times what a set would have sold for in the 1960s. That Curtis, a man of humble background, was able to create this massive landmark publication makes his accomplishments all the more extraordinary.
Edward Curtis was born in 1868 in rural Wisconsin. His father, Reverend Johnson Curtis, had returned from the Civil War penniless and debilitated; Curtis and his siblings grew up in poverty, with the entire family occasionally going for days or even weeks at a time subsisting solely on a diet of potatoes. Yet Reverend Curtis and his wife Ellen managed to raise a family of four children, of which Edward was the second. Before his fifth birthday, the family moved to rural Cordova, Minnesota, where his father continued his vocation as an itinerant preacher. Even though Curtis undoubtedly had some contact with American Indians while growing up in Minnesota, most traditional Indian life there had disappeared by the time he and his family arrived in the 1870s, and no specific record exists of any American Indian influence on his life at that time.
Reverend Curtis ministered to a very sparsely populated parish, and Edward often accompanied him on long treks to visit his far-flung congregation. These treks, which included frequent journeys by canoe, may well have been the inception of his love of the outdoors. Having completed his formal education at age twelve, Curtis built himself a camera, using a stereopticon lens his father had brought back from the Civil War fifteen years earlier and $1.25 for the remaining parts. Demonstrating the self-direction, ingenuity, and independence that would be hallmarks of his adult life, Curtis thus unwittingly embarked on his photographic career.
By his mid-teens, Curtis had spent a great deal of time reading about and experimenting with photographic techniques and ideas. At the age of seventeen he moved to St. Paul, MN where he spent time as an apprentice photographer. Curtis was soon well versed in the fundamentals of photography and had become a serious and dedicated practitioner. In 1887 his father’s worsening health mandated that the family move to a more temperate climate, and they chose the booming Pacific Northwest. This move to the Puget Sound area near Seattle would later play a major role in Curtis’s interest in the American Indians.
Initially, however, Curtis would not be able to pursue his love of photography. His father’s health had been further weakened by the journey, and he died shortly after the move. Responsibility for the family’s income fell primarily to Edward. For several years the family lived a life of bare subsistence, with Edward and his younger brother Asahel gathering seafood and picking fruit and vegetables. At times menial jobs were available, and by 1890 the family managed to purchase a modest homestead.
Following his entrepreneurial bent, Curtis secured a loan using the family homestead as collateral and quickly parlayed the proceeds into a share in a small Seattle photography studio. The fact that he was willing to put at risk the family’s hard – earned security to pursue his vision was indicative of the strength and depth of his passion for photography and his belief in his ability to succeed in business. Two years later, having established a modicum of financial stability, Curtis married a family friend, Clara Phillips. They began a family almost immediately and had four children: Harold, Beth, Florence, and Katherine.
Curtis had established himself as Seattle’s foremost studio photographer by 1896, and this success gave him a newfound level of financial freedom that allowed him to spend time away from the studio to pursue his love of the great outdoors. His trips to photograph the area’s spectacular mountain and ocean scenery led him to encounter small pockets of American Indians who still maintained some vestiges of their traditional lifestyles. By this time, Curtis had begun exploring an interest that would ultimately result in the most comprehensive photo – ethnographic record of the North America Indians ever created.
By 1898 Curtis had begun receiving recognition from both the photographic community and the general public for his American Indian photographs. The same year, a chance event occurred that significantly altered the course of his life. While on one of his many mountaineering trips, Curtis rescued a lost party of climbers on Mount Rainier that included several prominent people nationally recognized for their work in conservation, Indian ethnography, and publishing. The men were grateful for his assistance, and several took a professional interest in his photographic work, among them George Bird Grinnell. This led directly to an invitation for Curtis to join an important scientific expedition in 1899.
Curtis’s participation in this expedition gave him his first real grounding in the discipline and rigors of the scientific method. The expedition, organized by railroad magnate E. H. Harriman, included many of the country’s most noted scientists, ethnographers’ and naturalists. Known as the Harriman Alaskan Expedition, the venture lasted nearly three months and covered thousands of miles between Seattle and the Arctic Circle.
By the turn of the century, with his Seattle studio business booming, Curtis’s photographs of Indians were winning national awards and being exhibited internationally, bringing him a new source of income and recognition. The stage was thus set when George Bird Grinnell invited Curtis to join him on another expedition, in the summer of 1900, to witness the Sun Dance ceremony in Montana. Grinnell, who was known as the Father of the Blackfoot, had spent twenty seasons in the field with the Blackfoot and Piegan and had established a position of knowledge and trust that opened new doors for Curtis that fateful summer. It was this access to closely held native rituals and spiritual beliefs that so profoundly changed his life. Equally important were the personal interactions between Curtis and several native individuals. Thus, on his return to Seattle, he stayed only a few weeks before embarking on his first self-financed, self- directed trip into the field: a journey to the Southwest to meet the Navajo, Apache, and Hopi peoples of Arizona.
In 1904, Curtis won a national portrait contest from among eighteen thousand entrants. This recognition brought him to the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. Curtis was invited to photograph one of Roosevelt’s children, which led to a close friendship between the photographer and the President. A great lover of the West, Roosevelt was very sympathetic to the plight of the American Indian, and he became an active champion of Curtis and his work. Roosevelt expressed his support and admiration in a letter of recommendation, which Curtis used in 1906 to approach J. P. Morgan, the man whose initial financial commitment made the first stages of The North American Indian project possible.
Between 1906 and 1930, Curtis encountered every imaginable hardship and endured great personal risk in pursuit of his dream. It is difficult to imagine the enormity of Curtis’s task. Not only was he making tens of thousands of negatives throughout the western United States and Canada, but he also acted as the project’s principal ethnographer, fundraiser, publisher, and administrator. He wrote most of the initial drafts for the nearly four thousand pages of ethnographic narrative before submitting the text to the project’ s editor, Frederick Webb Hodge. George Bird Grinnell, the author and explorer Curtis accompanied on both the 1899 Harriman expedition to Alaska and the 1900 expedition to Montana, summed up Curtis’s work when he said, in a 1907 issue of National Geographic.
The pictures speak for themselves, and the artist who made them is devoted to his work To accomplish it he has exchanged ease, comfort, home life, for the hardest kind of work, frequent and long-continued separation from his family, the wearing toil of travel through difficult regions, and finally the heartbreaking struggle of winning over to his purpose to primitive people, to whom ambition, time and money mean nothing, but to whom a dream or a cloud in the sky, or a bird flying across the trail from the wrong direction, means much.
The North American Indian was perhaps the most ambitious publication ever undertaken by a single man, and it was widely hailed as a landmark in American publishing history. In 1911, the New York Herald said that it was the most gigantic undertaking since the publication of the King James Edition of the Bible. Unfortunately, Morgan’s generous support, which ultimately greatly exceeded his initial commitment, was something of a double-edged sword. It gave Curtis enough money to begin the project, but also dissuaded other potential patrons from supporting it. Some withheld contribution out of a certain jealousy or animosity toward Morgan, others out of the mistaken belief that Curtis did not need support beyond Morgan’s apparent largesse. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Morgan’s contributions covered only about thirty-five percent of the final cost, forcing Curtis to struggle incessantly to raise funds. These difficulties were exacerbated by the great financial panic of 1907, which seriously hurt subscription sales of The North American Indian and reversed much of the initial momentum that was so important to the project’s success.
In reality, the undertaking was in financial trouble throughout the entire twenty-four-year period between 1906 and 1930, but Curtis constantly strived to keep his project afloat. In addition to being the principal fundraiser for The North American Indian, he also maintained a grueling lecture and exhibition schedule, actively sold original photographs, and invested heavily in a feature-length film in an unrelenting effort to support the disappointing sale of subscriptions for the limited -edition books. His financial resources were especially strained from the beginning of World War I until 1921, and the project was essentially moribund during that period.
Some share of responsibility for the great financial burden of the project can be placed on Curtis. While the logistical and financial requirements of the fieldwork were constant, the expenses related to publishing the books were staggering. The craftsmanship and the materials Curtis insisted on were of the highest possible quality, and his rigorous standards made each set of The North American Indian very expensive. In addition, Curtis selected the difficult and expensive process of photogravure for both the volume and the portfolio prints. This process allowed Curtis to make prints of great subtlety and beauty with a high degree of consistency, but the resulting expense of each set led to a steep shortfall in sales. Of a projected five hundred sets, less than three hundred were actually produced, and only two hundred fourteen were sold during Curtis’s involvement in the project. It is estimated that he needed to sell four hundred sets just to break even.
By design, the photogravures were offered exclusively as part of the twenty-volume, twenty-portfolio set of The North American Indian; but during his extensive travels throughout the United States to lecture, Curtis actively promoted the sale of other kinds of original photographs. He was an exceptional photographic craftsman and a master printer, and, to make up for the financial shortfalls created by the publication of The North American Indian, he offered individual nongravure prints to the public. Curtis had experimented with a number of different photographic techniques, and this experience allowed him to create markets for photographs produced with a variety of processes, including platinum prints, gelatin silver prints, cyanotypes, goldtones, and hand colored prints. These sales helped assuage the financial hemorrhaging to a small degree, and Curtis finally managed to complete volumes and portfolios twelve through twenty between 1921 and 1930.
The intensity with which Curtis pursued his dream did little for his health or well-being. Having driven himself to the limit for many years, he suffered a nervous and physical breakdown in 1930, soon after the project was completed. Following his recovery two years later, he spent the last twenty years of his life in Los Angeles with his beloved daughter Beth. He died in 1952, essentially unknown and penniless.
At the time of Curtis’s death, The North American Indian project was by and large forgotten. It was not until the 1970s, when a growing public interest in American Indians, the environment, and photography all coincided, that Curtis’s work resurfaced and was once again appreciated. With this revival came renewed high praise. Noted author and critic A. D. Coleman stated, “Curtis’s work stands as… an absolutely unmatched masterpiece of visual anthropology, and one of the most thorough, extensive, and profound photographic works of all time.” Curtis’s work is as widely respected and popular now as it was during its zenith between 1900 and 1915.
Curtis’s work is not without its critics, however. His own-stated and overriding intent was to photograph American Indians as they had been before their lives, their culture, and their very spirit were devastated by contact with European civilization. Despite this, some critics failed to understand and have dismissed him as a romantic. Yet, as A. D. Coleman noted, romantic is not necessarily a pejorative term; a standard definition of the word is “signifying the spirit of chivalry, adventure, and wonder, the preoccupation with the picturesque and suggestive aspects of nature.” In this sense, the style Curtis often employed was perfectly appropriate for the vision he wanted to communicate. Acclaimed photo historian Beaumont Newhall gave this assessment of Curtis: “I find the choice of the word documentary to describe Curtis’s work somewhat misleading, for his approach was highly interpretative, personal, and romantic. He went to great lengths to reconstruct the past. To push, as it were, time back.” Clearly, Curtis intended to capture the essence of American Indians and their traditional culture, not their circumstances in 1900.
Viewed in its entirety, The North American Indian presents an historical record of enormous importance. Edward S. Curtis has preserved for future generations an important era in American history and provided an opportunity to understand the American Indian experience. Perhaps the most important legacy of Curtis’s monumental accomplishment is the expression of an extraordinary and deeply felt sympathy with the personal and spiritual lives of the American Indians. In this respect, Edward S. Curtis stands alone among the photographers of American Indians.