From 1896 to 1930, Edward S. Curtis embarked on an artistic and scholarly project of monumental proportions. His goal was to systematically record the ceremonies, legends, daily life experiences and leaders of every major Native American tribe west of the Mississippi river. In total, Curtis took over 40,000 photographs of eighty tribes.
In addition to his photographic contributions, Curtis made Edison wax cylinder recordings of the music, songs and chants of Native Americans. These recordings were later transcribed into musical notation. Thanks to his efforts, the basic concepts of 75 languages and dialects were preserved and more than 10,000 songs were recorded.
With his camera, Curtis the artist, used lenses and glass-plate negatives much as painters use brushes and canvas. He worked with the distribution of light and shadow, blurred focus, and photo cropping to heighten the dramatic effect of his photographs. Like other photographers in what became known as the “pictorial tradition,” Curtis was artistically influenced by impressionist painters.
Unlike documentary photographers, bound by specific times and places, Curtis’ pictorial techniques sought to depict spiritual and emotional aspects of his subjects. The results were impressionistic and picturesque photographs that, to this day, can be interpreted universally.
Curtis obtained the endorsement of President Theodore Roosevelt and some financial backing from the railroad tycoon, J.P. Morgan, to produce an historic and encyclopedic publication: “The North American Indian.” This set of twenty bound volumes and twenty accompanying portfolios of loose photogravures included 2,232 of his photographs. A complete set occupies almost five feet of shelf space.
Curtis’ goal was to reach a wide audience by publishing and selling sets of “The North American Indian.” While dealers and scholars continue to debate the total number of sets published, the generally accepted number is only 272. Today, approximately 80% of these sets, (between 200 to 225), are locked up in the archives of institutions, museums and libraries. For the most part, they are unavailable to the general public. The balance of the original sets have been broken up and sold to collectors over the years. Today, individual prints of Curtis’ originals in this collection command prices ranging from $1,000 to well over $25,000.