Edward S. Curtis began photographing Native Americans in the mid- 1890s and selling these images in his successful downtown Seattle studio. One of his earliest subjects was Princess Angeline, the aged daughter of Chief Sealth, the Suquamish Indian after whom Seattle is named. At the National Photographic Convention of 1899 Curtis was awarded the grand prize for several of his soft-focused, sepia-toned images of Native Americans 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." He began to gain national recognition through articles and publication of his images.

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In 1904, encouraged by the popularity of his Indian images, Curtis began in earnest to photograph other tribes throughout the West. By now he had formulated a plan to document all of the tribes west of the Mississippi River that still maintained to a certain degree their native lifeways and customs. Curtis agreed with the common scholarly opinion that very soon all Native American cultures would be completely acculturated into white society. His desire was to create a scholarly and artistic work that would catalog the ceremonies, beliefs, daily life and landscapes of the North American Indian before it was too late.

Curtis was fortunate in his endeavor to gain recognition and endorsement from President Theodore Roosevelt and financial backing from J.P. Morgan. Curtis' masterwork, The North American Indian, he and Morgan decided, would be a set of 20 volumes of ethnographic text 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. Both the volumes and portfolios would be sumptuously bound or enclosed 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 a translucent Japanese tissue paper.

Unable to find a publisher to take on a project of such large scope, Morgan convinced Curtis to distribute the work himself. To fund publication, Curtis would sell subscriptions in advance at $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. By this time the fashion for Indian images had waned and Curtis' work had drastically declined in popularity. Thus, his lifework, The North American Indian, which neither fit neatly into the classification of art nor science, virtually faded into obscurity.

In 1935 The North American Indian Corporation liquidated its assets and the materials remaining from the project were sold to the Charles Lauriat Company, a rare book dealer in Boston. Lauriat acquired 19 unsold sets of The North American Indian, thousands of individual prints, sheets of unbound paper, and the handmade copper photogravure plates. The company found buyers for the 19 sets and completed an additional 50 using remainder material and photogravures printed on a different paper, bringing the total number of sets marketed to 291. What went unsold eventually ended up in the Lauriat Company's basement and was forgotten for nearly 30 years.

The North American Indian was "rediscovered" in the 1970s after showings of Curtis' work at the Pierpont Morgan Library and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Because by this time nearly all of his sets were residing in the special collections of museums and libraries and many of his negatives had been 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.
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Complete twenty-volume set of
The North American Indian,
by Edward S. Curtis

"The great changes in practically every phase of the Indian's life that have taken place, especially within recent years, have been such that had the time for collecting much of the material, both descriptive and illustrative, herein recorded, been delayed, it would have been lost forever. 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. It is this need that has inspired the present task.
"- Edward S. Curtis, 1907