Edward S. Curtis was somebody with a unique passion for photography and history. His journey through life would make him a picturesque example of the life of one man, going from normal life, to nearly stardom in his field of work, forced into being a struggling entrepreneur, and then a chronic debtor. The reality of the 20th century is this: The Industrial Revolution was just taking off! Monopolies, such as J.P. Morgan, would take up the responsibility of funding Curtis’s The North American Indian. Over the course of his work, it would appear that Curtis’s financial overseer would slowly erode his ownership rights over the works that he spent so long and hard developing. Sadly, it’s par for the course in a world of cutthroat financiers and bankers.
The method I have chosen to explore this topic uses an economic and cultural school of thought, with special emphasis on Edward S. Curtis’s professional decline centered around possibly the biggest cultural project in North American history. Historian Mick Gidley wrote two resources that ventured into this history. One, Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian in the Field. Two, Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated. Ultimately, it comes down to a very narrow history and authorship to this topic outside of criticisms in his business venture. Also, the Morgan Library and Curtis Library carries materials focusing on this topic.
The North American Indian was a project that went from 1907 to 1930, in which he would embed himself in with many varying tribes across the western part of the nation. Ultimately the goal here was to “capture the ‘otherness’ of indigenous American Indian life” in photographs and documentation through recording their cultural observations in explicit detail. It was common during this era of time that Edward Curtis would hold a worldview that saw the aboriginal culture as scientifically primitive. Some criticism he received was seen by liberal institutions as promoting a “myth of a vanishing race, with the notion that Indians are historical features of an American landscape, not functioning members in a modern society.”
Originally, this was a project that was planned for five years. Over the course of the journey, expenses, and wages would begin to take its toll on the expedition. Curtis, being a photographer and professional note-taker, would be doubted by scholars in his direct observations of the tribes. Because of public reception being mixed, this may have been the reason that less than 250 out of 500 of them were printed. Over the course of time, from the 1970’s onward, reception to Curtis’s work would be gritty due to his “reconstructed images” modeled by the Indians doing customary work. Many people fail to realize how long it actually took pictures to actually capture onto film at that time. And was it even really film? The point here is that it would take some time to set up a camera, pose, and finally get the flash to capture the image. It would have been nearly impossible to capture any “live-action” images during this era, at least not in the way it was even seen in the 1970’s.
“... Morgan agreed [in 1906] to finance the fieldwork for the project at the rate of fifteen thousand dollars per annum for five years ... The injection of funds from one of the world's richest and most influential people ... set a stamp of approval on the project's more ambitious aspects ... Arrangements ... for the management of the Curtis studio in Seattle were formalized ... An office was established at 437 Fifth Avenue in New York City ... with its own manager, but with Curtis himself much in evidence -- to handle subscription sales and promotion of the monumental publication ... that Morgan and Curtis had decided upon: twenty volumes of illustrated text and twenty portfolios of large-sized photogravures.”
... The North American Indian, we find, was unashamedly aimed at leading members of the urban, Eastern business community ... [in a 1911 report] ... reminiscent of many self-justifying statements by men like Andrew Carnegie ... Curtis said, “Civilization, with its tremendous force and its insatiable desire to possess all, must necessarily crush the weaker life of primitive man.”
... the processes by which domination was achieved ... were deemed natural. Indeed, the employment of natural imagery throughout the report is most noticeable. Curtis claimed ... that The North American Indian was itself a product of “Nature” per se: “Nature tells the story, and in nature’s own simple words I can but place it before the reader.”
The North American Indian was created with a massive team of people, with wide-reaching efforts. Curtis was the command-and-control position, managing many others in research and writing. “... The 1906 agreement with Morgan was not ... as munificent as it seemed in that it exacted, in true Morgan fashion, a heavy obligation from Curtis: He was to publish the expensively produced volumes ... out of his own funds ... But the building of a subscription list took time and Curtis had major financial problems almost immediately". [After taking out loans and seeking additional grants he was extremely discouraged by summer 1907, writing in a letter] ... " Remember I am doing the best I can and keeping 17 helpers from having cold feet and at the same time get together something over forty-five hundred dollars a month to pay the bills."
“... [Requests for additional funding from Morgan's office] led to the North American Indian, Inc., office exerting some control over the movements of Curtis and other fieldworkers, including one occasion in 1925 when Myers was specifically forbidden to travel East to discuss with Hodge volumes then in press.”
“... Curtis would be made to pass over more of his rights in exchange; [for further funding from J.P. Morgan’s holdings] ... between 1923 and 1928, in a succession of legal documents, he relinquished copyright in all the pictures published in The North American Indian. But by then he was a chronic debtor.”
In conclusion, it’s interesting to see how early monopolized companies such as J. P. Morgan would take a man with a dream and seemingly run them broke in the process. In a slow process, much like “Hegelian dialect,” Curtis went from master planner to the poor house thanks to poor fiscal planning and a greedy financier, such as J. P. Morgan. He would slowly sign away the rights to his work, in payment for further ventures with The North American Indian. From this illustration, you can see how Edward S. Curtis’s project met the same fate as many modern-day entrepreneurs. You win some and you lose some.
Daniel L. Smith
 "The Vanishing Race : Selections from Edward S. Curtis' The North American Indian." Internet Archive. Accessed June 17, 2021. https://archive.org/details/vanishingracesel0000curt.
 Gidley, Mick. Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 19-20.
 Gidley, 127-128.
 Gidley, 128.
 Gidley, p. 110-11 and n. 5, quoting letter from Curtis to Edmond S. Meany.
 Gidley, p. 113 and n. 9, citing letter from Curtis to Hodge of 1925 and the E.S. Curtis Materials, Pierpont Morgan Library.
 Gidley, p. 113 and n. 10, citing the Curtis Materials, Morgan Library.