February 2018 | Nate Pedersen

Census Project Launches for Curtis's "The North American Indian"

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A project has launched to census the current locations of all surviving extant copies of Edward Curtis's multi-volume masterpiece The North American Indian. The Curtis Census, conceived and maintained by Seattle photographer and researcher Tim Greyhavens, officially launched in November, 2017, with a website that includes a comprehensive, real-time inventory of all census data collected to date.

There is no definitive answer yet about how many sets of The North American Indian were officially printed. In the rare instances where a complete set comes up to auction, it can command over $1m. (For more about Curtis and his legacy, see our 2011 feature).

Mr. Greyhavens of the Curtis Census answered a few questions for us over email earlier this week:

What interests you about Curtis and his work?  

Edward Curtis was a phenomenon. He was born into a family of meager means, had no more than an eighth-grade education, and had very little training in photography. Yet he created one of the most beautiful and famous publications of all time--The North American Indian. While the twenty volumes and portfolios are filled with stunning images, the accompanying texts are equally as important. Curtis recorded dozens of interviews with tribal leaders, detailed family histories, language vocabularies, descriptions of ceremonies and dances, and many other important depictions of Indian life at the start of the 20th century. Today it's recognized that his work is filled with cultural biases and prejudices, but as a record of its time it is beyond comparison.  

What inspired you to start this census?  

I write about the intersections between photography and philanthropy, including who funds individual photographers. Edward Curtis received more money for his North American Indian project than any other photographer before or since--the equivalent in today's dollars of at least $20 million. With that money he created one of the most beautiful publications of the 20th century, and yet there has been no conclusive answer about exactly how many sets of the books were published. He planned an edition of 500 sets (of 20 volumes and portfolios each), but due to their high cost and the prolonged publication cycle it's likely that no more than 300 sets were printed. Given the books' fame and value, it seemed to me that with today's technology we should be able to come up with a more precise answer to the relatively simple question of how many were published.   

Are you a Curtis collector yourself?  

I'm primarily a book collector, with a focus on mid-20th-century photographers. While I certainly admire all of Curtis's books, with their current value I'm content to let others have the responsibility for caring for them.

(If you are interested in helping with the Curtis Census, Tim is looking for volunteers. You can contact him here).