Edward S. Curtis began photographing Native Americans around 1895 and producing silver print and platinum print photographs as well as goldtones, or photographs on glass backed with a gold coating, for sale in his successful downtown Seattle studio. At the National Photographic Exhibition of 1899, he was awarded the grand prize for several of his soft focused, sepia toned images of Indians collecting clams and mussels along the beaches of Puget Sound. Curtis' romantic images appealed to the turn of the century sensibilities of many who envisioned the Indian as the heroic character of a "vanishing race." Like Curtis, many Euro-Americans of his day recognized the fact that the traditional lifeways and landscapes of the American Indians were quickly disappearing under the pressures of acculturation.
In 1904, encouraged by the popularity of his Indian images, Curtis began in earnest to photograph other tribes throughout the West. At this time, he envisioned a plan to document all of the tribes west of the Mississippi which still maintained to a certain degree their native lifeways and customs. He was fortunate to gain recognition and endorsement from President Roosevelt as well as financial assistance from J. P. Morgan for his project. His masterwork, The North American Indian, he and Morgan decided, would be a set of 20 books documenting the lifeways, mythology and ceremonies of over 80 tribes-illustrated with high quality photoengravings taken from his glass plate negatives. Each of these volumes would be accompanied by a portfolio of large size images all sumptuously bound in Moroccan leather. The papers used for printing would also be of the best quality: a Dutch etching stock by Van Gelder, a Japanese vellum, and for the most discerning subscribers, a translucent Japanese rice paper. To fund publication, Curtis would sell subscriptions at approximately $3,000 per-set.
Although he had hoped to print a limited edition of 500 copies, Curtis was only able to find 222 subscribers for The North American Indian and thus printed less than 300 sets. Mainly due to lack of funds and the constant need for marketing his work, Curtis did not issue his final volume and portfolio set until 1930, over 20 years after his projected completion date. Soon after, the popularity of his work diminished as the fashion for Indian images waned and The North American Indian, which neither fit neatly into the classification of art or science, virtually faded into obscurity.
The North American Indian was "rediscovered" in the 1970s after a showing of Curtis’ work at the Pierpont Morgan Library. Because by this time nearly all of his sets were residing in the special collections of museums and libraries and most of his negatives destroyed, original Curtis photographs and photoengravings became highly collectable. Sets were split up to provide collectors interested in his work with individual images. Curtis’ work has steadily gained in popularity and collectability since that time. Original photoengravings from his masterwork, The North American Indian (1907- 1930), now fetch prices of up to $25,000 and are expected to keep increasing as there are so few of any given image available. Now is a great time to collect original E. S. Curtis photographic works as recent exposure in major publications such as Architectural Digest (April 1995) and Country Living (May 1995) has served to make his photography more sought after than ever before.