Thoughts to Edward S. Curtis from the Smithsonian – 1907


“Your idea is a grand one – the preservation for the far future of an adequate record of the physical types of one of the four races of men, a race fast losing its typical characters and soon destined to pass completely away. The only means of preservation available is by publication in permanent coloring materials and on paper of the very best quality. The ordinary book of today will last but a few generations. This publication should last a thousand years, and it would not be the part of wisdom to undertake the expenditure required for its issue without having a series of types satisfactory artistically and covering the ground ethnologically. Such a publication should not consist of a haphazard collection of Indian portraits, but should represent all the important tribes, and, so far as possible, should consist not only of portraits but of illustrations of the arts and customs of the peoples. The project is a splendid one, and has an importance that can be realized only by those who, having a true conception of the work proposed, take the trouble to assume the point of view of the student of human history a thousand years in the future. I sincerely hope that you will succeed in this most commendable undertaking. The series of volumes would be a monument to yourself and especially to the institution making the publication possible.”

Over 30 years, Curtis fashioned a magnificent, luminous portrait of American Indian life—documentation of over 80 tribes west of the Mississippi River. Upon its completion in 1930, “The North American Indian”, consisted of 20 volumes, containing 1172 hand-pressed photogravures and 4000 pages of written text. Each volume was accompanied by a corresponding portfolio containing at least 36 large photogravures in each portfolio, 722 in total.

Curtis’ work stands a monumental photo-ethnographic publishing project and an unrivaled masterpiece of visual anthropology. His images remain indelible in the American consciousness.