Edward S. Curtis was an American photographer and ethnologist whose work focused on the American West and on Native American people.
He was born in 1868 near Whitewater, Wisconsin and ended his formal education with the sixth grade. Soon thereafter he built his own camera and taught himself to expose and develop film and to make photographic prints. By age seventeen, Edward was working as an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Curtis not only attempted, but actually achieved the impossible. With the photographic collection named The North American Indian, he created an irreplaceable photographic and ethnographic record of more than eighty of North America’s native nations – a record first published between 1907 and 1930, which after decades of obscurity in rare book rooms and private collections, has experienced its renaissance. Comprising twenty volumes, twenty portfolios, thousands of pages of text, and more than twenty- two hundred photogravures, The North American Indian remains not only an unparalleled artistic and historic achievement, but a watershed in publishing history.
Encouraged by great public hoopla and imbued with blind faith, Curtis did not foresee the unremitting sacrifices the project would exact from him. He hoped to complete the study in five or six years within a budget of $25,000. In fact, what the New York Herald hailed as “the most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible,” required for its completion more than thirty years, one and a half million dollars and the assistance of a vast array of patrons, researchers, scientists, editors, master craftsmen, interpreters, sympathetic creditors, tribal elders, and medicine men. Ultimately, the study cost Curtis his family, his financial security and his health. Nevertheless, to the end, he single-mindedly pursued his intense and powerful vision with an extraordinary sense of mission to document how Indians lived prior to their contact with the white man.
Curtis believed, The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other; consequently the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time.