Edward Curtis was a genius of an artist who focused all his immense talents on his singular obsession to save the traditional lifeways of the American Indian. And astonishingly, over a staggering thirty-year period of work, he did accomplish what he sought out to do and he did save the traditional lifeways of these peoples but at tremendous personal cost. It cost him his marriage, it cost him any financial gain he might ever have had, and it cost him his health. It spite of all this, he persevered and left a body of work never to be equaled in the field of photography or publishing.
Curtis was uniquely able to create, out of whole cloth, a lasting vision of the American Indian that never existed before it was first seen through his photographic lens. The photographic works of Edward Curtis have the duality of being an incredible artistic creation at the same time as being a document of a people. Edward Curtis produced images of the American Indian that not only record real daily activity, but also, remarkably, are able to convey a dignity, universal humanity and majesty that transcend literally all other work ever done on the subject. In his photographs, we see images that are unique and are able to stand-alone in the world of photography.
Edward Curtis was truly revolutionary in his portrayal of the American Indian. He was the first photographer to involve American Indians as active participants and contributing collaborators in the making of their own image. He was the first to portray them as anything other than objects of curiosity. His distinct visual legacy can readily be seen in work ranging from Irving Penn to John Ford, and from Annie Leibovitz to Sebastião Salgado. Equally impressive about this dynamic artist and mostly unacknowledged, was his ready exploration and innovation of other media, including film, multi-media production, and sound recording.