Edward S. Curtis, one of the best known and most prolific photographers of Native Americans, played a major role in shaping the view of Indians as "noble savages," members of a vanishing race. For more than a quarter of a century, beginning shortly after 1900, Curtis engaged in a herculean effort to make "a comprehensive and permanent record of all the important tribes in the United States that still retain to a considerable degree their primitive traditions and customs." During this period, Curtis took more than 400,000 photographs, collected more than 350 traditional Indian tales, produced a full-length feature film, and made more than 10,000 sound recording of Indian speeches and music.
The published result was a masterwork-The North American Indian- 20 volumes of text, including more than 1,500 full-page illustrations, accompanied by 20 portfolois containing more than 700 copperplate photogravures. Curtis's work is both a brilliant achievement of artistic photography and a revealing look into how art may both refelct and shape public opinion.
Curtis received valuable help in the course of his monumental endeavor, including at least two occasions when fate tapped him on the shoulder. In 1898, while climbing M. Rainier, he rescued a group of hikers that included C. Hart Merriam, George Bird Grinnell and Gifford Pinchot. These distinguised scientists and writers later provided him with invaluable contracts and assistance. In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt saw Curtis's work in a magazine and asked him to make a portrait of his children. Roosevelt provided Curtis with a letter of introduction that gave him access to many helpful people, including Curtis's Primary financial backer, J.P. Morgan. however, despite Morgan's assistance, the need constantly to scramble for funds plagued Curtis throughout the life of his project. When the final volume came out, in 1930, his health, marriage, and finances had all been ruined.
Curtis never published another book after 1930, and rarely spoke again of The North American Indian. He spent the rest of his life wandering, mining for gold and, in his final years, farming. Edward Curtis dies in 1952, an enigma, perhaps a genius, and one of the most interesting and controversial photographers of the twentieth century.
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