Born to a Civil War veteran and Reverend in 1868, Edward S. Curtis took an interest in photography from an early age, eventually apprenticing under a photographer in St. Paul, Minnesota at the age of seventeen. After moving to Seattle with his family soon thereafter, Edward purchased a camera and a stake in a local photo studio.
In 1898, Curtis set out to photograph Mt. Rainier in what is today Washington State, and while there, encountered a team of scientists who were lost, most notably George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell, an expert on Native Americans, took an interest in Curtis's work and invited him to photograph the Blackfeet Indian tribe in Montana. On this assignment, Curtis honed his skills as a photographer and began his lifelong passion of photographing Native American tribes.
What made Curtis's work significant was his methodology, which included interviews and a level of context that was absent from previous photography projects on Native Americans. Curtis made a point to record the people's traditional way of life along with their portraits, including their industries, arts, and language. Along with his photographs, Curtis made 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian language and music. In his lifetime, Curtis took over 40,000 photographs from over 80 tribes.
By the time his expansive volume was published in 1930, the public interest in Native Americans had waned due to existential crises brought on by the Great Depression. In total, only 300 sets of The North American Indian sold, and when he died in 1952, he was relatively unknown. It wasn't until decades later that appreciation for his seminal work finally came around.