Edward S. Curtis's monumental project, The North American Indian, resulted in twenty large picture portfolios, each with about thirty-nine photogravures intended for framing, and twenty accompanying text volumes in a leather bound edition. Produced between 1907 and 1930, The North American Indian was available by subscription and was collected mostly by wealthy patrons and major library and museum collections. It cost $3,000.
Curtis was an established society photographer in Seattle, who grew bored with conventional portraiture.
His adventures outside the studio in the Mount Ranier area and nearby Indian reservations drew him to seek more "picturesque" subjects.
On a serendipitous outing, a rescue of "scientificos," he met George Bird Grinnell, ethnologist and friend of Theodore Roosevelt; Gifford Pinchot, chief of the U.S. Forest Service; and C. Hart Merriam, head of the Biological Survey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Encouraged to join them on western expeditions, Curtis began to establish his goals for the photographic project and also garnered financial support from them.1
Using the image of The Vanishing Race—Navaho as his introductory photograph, Curtis captions it thus:
"The thought which this picture is meant to convey is that the Indians as a race, already shorn in their tribal strength and stripped of their dress, are passing into the darkness of an unknown future. Feeling that the picture expresses so much of the thought that inspired the entire work,the author has chosen it as the first of the series."
President Roosevelt encouraged Curtis, boosting the project as a patriotic national treasure. His foreword praises the publication as a positive record: "the Indian as he has hitherto been is on the point of passing away." Using this as his thesis, Curtis presents his subjects first in pictorialist style, manipulating the images with a blurred soft focus and posing them in settings untouched by "civilization." Romanticizing his subjects with collected artifacts, he idealized the indigenous people in nostalgic settings.
After the first World War (during which publication ceased), Curtis suffered a loss of financial support and moved both his focus and studio. He relocated to New York City, spending mainly summers in the west. His gallery was located on Fifth Avenue, close to Steiglitz's 291 gallery, and other modern photographers and painters. Exposed to a new developing modernism, Curtis's work takes on a more avant garde feel, as exhibited in Kwakiutl House Frame, a study of perspective outlining rectilinear construction.2
Critics noticed that Curtis and other artists, Picasso and Stieglitz for example, were combining ethnography and fine art. Curtis displayed in his studio Native American artifacts with his photographs. In doing so his style after 1914 encompassed a "native" modernism. This progressive movement toward nativism emphasized American identity and characteristics, and prompted prominent artists and politicians to seek more rights for Indians.
Curtis never abandoned his pictorialist photographs, and continued to publish his earlier work with photographs produced years later.3
1. Egan, Shannon. "Yet in a primitive condition: Edward S. Curtis's North American Indian." American Art, v.20, no.3 (2006), p. 58–82.