Finding his life’s mission
Curtis decided to make it his life mission to document the tribes of North America. He thought they were on the point of vanishing. At one point he went to the Smithsonian to ask for financing but they told him, “We have experts here; some have even been to Indian country”. They preferred to work with researchers with credentials from academia. The Smithsonian also told Curtis that the Native Americans had no religion and it is interesting to note that Curtis documented that everything done by the people featured in the books is done to a sacred and spiritual point.
Curtis approached financier and banker J.P Morgan about financing the project but was turned down at first. He pulled out some of his photos and Morgan was so impressed by them that he offered to finance him with an initial investment of $75,000. Morgan was particularly impressed by the photo of a girl entitled Mosa-Mohave.
Curtis had an eye for excellent composition and he put a lot of time into understanding his subjects. He would wait patiently for facial features to settle and then photograph the “essence of soul”. President Theodore Roosevelt admired Curtis’ work and even hired him to photograph his daughter’s wedding. He also photographed Theodore Roosevelt and one of his friends said of the photograph, “It is more than a picture. It is the man himself.” Roosevelt, who thought of Curtis almost as if he were a member of his family, wrote the foreword for the Curtis books. He encouraged Curtis to pursue The North American Indian project.
Planning The North American Indian
According to the Curtis history, he and J. P. Morgan agreed on a plan to produce 20 volumes that would be sold on a subscription basis. Subscribers were forced to buy the entire set at a very high cost so the number of subscribers was limited. The cost was equivalent to the price of a large mansion. Though plans were originally made to print 500 copies, only 272 copies of Edward S. Curtis’s: The North American Indian were printed. In the early years of the project there were many subscribers but those numbers dwindled. The first volume was completed in 1907 and the last was published in 1930. When the stock market crashed in 1929, printing of the volumes was pretty much over.
Curtis felt trapped in a way. He had promised that he would complete the 20-volume set and felt duty-bound to deliver on that promise. Though there were slight changes in the techniques and prints over time, he wanted to be consistent with the appearance of the finished product. People had paid in advance for the volumes and they expected a certain level of quality. Work by other photographers of the times, such as Lewis Hine, focused on harsh realities but Curtis’ kept his original intent, composition, and production techniques. Though aesthetics had changed, The North American Indian did not reflect those changes.
The toll he paid
Curtis’ quest to document the tribes severely impacted his personal life. He worked 15-17 hour days and had two mental breakdowns requiring hospitalization. The “short nights” featured in the title of Timothy Egan’s book refers to the fact the Curtis slept so little. He wrote six to eight letters per night asking for additional funding. Curtis even created a first-of-its-kind multimedia show, The Indian Picture Opera, in order to promote the books. The opera included hand-tinted lantern slides and an original score. Curtis crisscrossed the continent 130 times. At one point in time he worked with his brother, photographer Asahel Curtis, but Asahel was not credited for much of his work. They likely became estranged due to this and other incidents and never spoke to each other again.
Photos by Edward S. Curtis in this article are from the following source: http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/index.html