In 1905, Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) began a thirty-year odyssey to photograph and document the lives and traditions of the Native Peoples of North America. This monumental project was hailed by The New York Times as – the most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible. (Wow – that is quite a statement!)
Year after year, he packed his camera and supplies—everything he’d need for months—and traveled by foot and by horse deep into the Indian territories. At the beginning of the 20th century, Edward S. Curtis worked in the belief that he was in a desperate race against time to document, with film, sound and scholarship, the North American Indian before white expansion and the federal government destroyed what remained of their natives’ way of life. For thirty years, with the backing of men like J. Pierpont Morgan and former president Theodore Roosevelt, but at great expense to his family life and his health, Curtis lived among dozens of native tribes, devoting his life to his calling until he produced a definitive and unparalleled work, The North American Indian.
In 1906 he boldly approached J.P. Morgan, who quickly dismissed him with a note that read, “Mr. Curtis, there are many demands on me for financial assistance. I will be unable to help you.” But Curtis persisted, and Morgan was ultimately awed by the photographer’s work. “Mr. Curtis,” Morgan wrote after seeing his images, “I want to see these photographs in books—the most beautiful set of books ever published.”
Morgan agreed to sponsor Curtis, paying out $75,000 over five years in exchange for 25 sets of volumes and 500 original prints. It was enough for Curtis to acquire the necessary equipment and hire interpreters and researchers. With a trail wagon and assistants traveling ahead to arrange visits, Edward Curtis set out on a journey that would see him photograph the most important Native Americans of the time, including Geronimo, Red Cloud, Medicine Crow and Chief Joseph.
On wax cylinders, his crew collected more than 10,000 recordings of songs, music and speech in more than 80 tribes, most with their own language. To the amusement of tribal elders, and sometimes for a fee, Curtis was given permission to organize re-enactments of battles and traditional ceremonies among the Indians, and he documented them with his hulking 14-inch-by- 17-inch view camera, which produced glass-plate negatives that yielded the crisp, detailed and gorgeous gold-tone prints he was noted for. The Native Americans came to trust him and ultimately named him “Shadow Catcher,” but Curtis would later note that, given his grueling travel and work, he should have been known as “The Man Who Never Took Time to Play.”
Just as Curtis began to produce volume after volume of The North American Indian, to high acclaim, J.P. Morgan died unexpectedly in Egypt in 1913. J.P. Morgan Jr. contributed to Curtis’s work, but in much smaller sums.
By 1930, Edward Curtis had published, to barely any fanfare, the last of his planned 20-volume set of The North American Indian, after taking more than 40,000 pictures over 30 years. The Morgan Company sold 19 complete sets of The North American Indian, along with thousands of prints and copper plates, to Charles Lauriat Books of Boston, Massachusetts for just $1,000 and a percentage of future royalties. With The North American Indian, Curtis achieved the impossible: an extraordinary 20-volume set of handmade books composed of nearly 4,000 pages of text and 2,200 images presenting more than 80 of North America’s Native Nations.
Goodness knows where these sets are today, but I would estimate that a set would be well into seven figures. Individual, original prints are available priced up to $10,000 each. It is estimated that producing The North American Indian today would cost more than $35 million.
A month ago, I knew nothing about Curtis and his incredible achievement. Subsequently, I came across the following book.
Sacred Legacy: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian; Photographs by Edward S. Curtis; Edited by Christopher Cardozo; Foreword by N. Scott Momaday; Essays by Christopher Cardozo and Joseph D. Horse Capture; Afterword by Anne Makepeace; Verve Editions, Burlington, Vermont, in conjunction with Christopher Cardozo, Cardozo Fine Art, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2005.
I just stared at the dust jacket of this book knowing that this was special. And this book is just that. The title was derived from the following statement by Curtis – “The passing of every man and woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rights possessed by no other”.
In this landmark volume, almost 200 of the finest examples of Curtis’s photographs are reproduced with startling fidelity to his original prints. Produced to the very highest standards, Sacred Legacy represents Curtis’s work without compromise for the first time. Taken together, these profound images constitute no less than the core and essence of his life’s work. Until now, virtually none of Curtis’s photographs have been reproduced in a manner that captures the clarity and richness of his original master prints.