Edward S. Curtis
Edward S. Curtis’ The North American Indian has been described by leading scholars, curators, and archivists as one of the largest anthropological enterprises ever undertaken. The North American Indian was part history, part anthropology, part technology, and part fine art photography. The copper photogravure plates are major cultural icons derived from the importance of the entire 30-year-long project.
The North American Indian is a 20-volume text that covers over 100 Native American tribes. Curtis worked entirely with the consent of the tribes that he studied, allowing them a role in their depiction, and in turn, he was able to document and record significant cultural information that had not been available before or since. Curtis accompanied his text with approximately 2,228 individual photographic illustrations, which he created via the photogravure process.
As an added and unexpected benefit, the copper photogravure plates, created for The North American Indian, have a multi-purpose quality to them: they are simultaneously research tools, institutional collectibles, museum, private gallery and exhibition displays and a means for cultural revitalization for Native Americans. Their value is to be measured not only in terms of their impact on current audiences including Native Tribes, historians, collectors, curators and museum professionals, but also on how well they can be preserved for future generations as examples of the multi-dimensional complexity of the western American experience.
The copper plates signify the artist’s final vision for his lifelong project, and the final creative and visual record of his images. Curtis’ plates are truly unique as there are multiple prints of an image but only one plate. He would often spend time reworking and editing the image on each plate. The quality of the etching and the intrinsic beauty of the copper add a certain aesthetic value that is distinct to this medium. Each plate is a one-of-a-kind piece, which exists simultaneously as both a work of fine art and a valuable historical artifact.