by Christopher Cardozo
It’s such a big dream, I can’t see it all. — Edward Sheriff Curtis
THESE WORDS MAY HAVE BEEN THE MOST PROFOUND EDWARD S. CURTIS EVER WROTE. They were addressed to noted anthropologist George Bird Grinnell over one hundred years ago, shortly after what was to be the defining experience of Curtis’ life. In the summer of 1900, Curtis first encountered American Indian culture in a state relatively unaltered by contact with Europeans. He witnessed one of the last performances of the Sun Dance ceremony and was given access to the sacred lives of numerous American Indians.
The coalescence of these three events created a profound shock wave that affected the very foundation of Curtis’ life, his values, and his beliefs. Having become deeply impassioned by the power and dignity of the American Indian, Curtis began to realize for the first time that he might create a record preserving the history of these magnificent people and their extraordinary culture. In the same letter to Grinnell, Curtis went on to say, “But I can start and sell prints of my pictures as I go along. I’m a poor man, but I’ve got my health, plenty of steam, and something to work for.” Curtis was thirty-two years old, with a family and a thriving business. His willingness to put at risk everything he had worked for up until then is a testament to his enlightened view of humanity, the strength of his individualism, and his creative genius.
With the assistance and patronage of several preeminent individuals, including J. P. Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, and the kings of both England and Belgium, Curtis succeeded in creating a photo – ethnographic study that was widely hailed as the finest set of limited – edition books ever made in America. During this thirty-year project, Curtis made forty-five to fifty thousand negatives, many of them on glass and some as large as fourteen by seventeen inches. He produced ten thousand wax cylinder recordings of Native languages and music and filmed the first, and some of the most extensive, moving-picture footage ever made of American Indians. All of this culminated in his magnum opus, The North American Indian: a twenty-volume, twenty-portfolio set of books hand – bound in leather, with hand-set letter press text and hand -pulled photogravure prints, all printed on handmade, imported etching stock. More …