I did not realize that Curtis is almost a contemporary photographer. When you look at his photographs you get an impression that these were made in the earliest days of photography, but studying his works you discover that many were made well after 1930.
His most important contribution is however, the series he made around 1915 on the history of the North American Indian people. He photographed the Indian peoples in a way that his works were not only important as a photography document but also they reflected the way the Indian peoples in North America, lived, dressed and were present in US society.
In 1906, J. P. Morgan provided Curtis with $75,000 to produce a series on Native Americans This work was to be in 20 volumes with 1,500 photographs. Morgan’s funds were to be disbursed over five years and were earmarked to support only fieldwork for the books, not for writing, editing, or production of the volumes. Curtis received no salary for the project, which was to last more than 20 years. Under the terms of the arrangement, Morgan was to receive 25 sets and 500 original prints as repayment.
Once Curtis had secured funding for the project, he was able to hire several employees to help him. For writing and for recording Native American languages, he hired a former journalist, William E. Myers. For general assistance with logistics and fieldwork, he hired Bill Phillips, a graduate of the University of Washington. Perhaps the most important hire for the success of the project was Frederick Webb Hodge, an anthropologist employed by the Smithsonian Institution, who had researched Native American peoples of the southwestern United States.[ Hodge was hired to edit the entire series.
Eventually 222 complete sets were published. Curtis’s goal was not just to photograph but also to document as much of Native American traditional life as possible before that way of life disappeared. He wrote in the introduction to his first volume in 1907, “The information that is to be gathered … respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.” Curtis made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American language and music. He took over 40,000 photographic images of members of over 80 tribes. He recorded tribal lore and history, and he described traditional foods, housing, garments, recreation, ceremonies, and funeral customs. He wrote biographical sketches of tribal leaders. His material, in most cases, is the only written recorded history, although there is still a rich oral tradition that preserves history.[His work was exhibited at the Rencontres d’Arles festival in France in 1973.
The book by Curtis on the North American Indians is available at www.ftn-books.com