Edward Curtis, later called by some Native American tribes “Shadow Catcher,” was born in 1868 near Whitewater, Wisconsin. In 1874 the Curtis family moved to La Sueur County, Minnesota. Curtis built his first camera at the age of twelve and taught himself to expose and develop film and to make photographic prints. By age seventeen, he was working as an apprentice photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota. His later photographs would have a profound impact on the imagination of all America.
Requiring for its completion more than thirty years, one and a half million dollars and the assistance of a vast array of patrons, researchers, scientists, editors, master craftsmen, interpreters, sympathetic creditors, tribal elders, and medicine men, Curtis published The North American Indian between 1907 and 1930. Comprised of twenty volumes, with more than twenty-two hundred photogravures, the book created a photographic and ethnographic record of more than eighty of North America’s native nations. In the field, Curtis instituted his own methodology, “the twenty-five cardinal points,” to amass information on all areas of Indian life and lore, including vocabulary; political and social organization; religious customs; dwellings, food gathering and preparation; geography; games; music and dance; dress; weights and measures; and birth, marriage, and death customs.
Part photographic essay, part ethnographic survey, and part work of art, Curtis’ North American Indian Project represented an attempt to capture images of American Indians as they lived before contact with Anglo cultures. The photogravure prints in The North American Indian reveal peoples whose traditional ways of life were coming to an end as the U.S. frontier began to fade.