(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28)
In 1896, Edward Curtis launched“one of the most ambitious documentary projects in the history of American photography,” said Gary Krist in The Washington Post. Curtis had already established himself in the Northwest as a portraitist when, as a diversion from memorializing civic leaders, the young artist photographed Princess Angeline, the 80-year-old daughter of Chief Seattle. Impressed by Angeline’s dignity, Curtis soon set out to document the remaining Native American tribes. For three decades, he risked everything for his magnum opus—40,000 photographs now regarded as a monumental achievement. Timothy Egan’s “spirited biography” makes vivid the costs of Curtis’s obsession.
“Curtis was not content to gather just a few stray souvenirs of Indian life,” said Wayne Curtis in The Wall Street Journal. Traveling to remote settings with his view camera, he hoped to capture the full story of the vanishing tribes, yet often feared he was too late. Though adept at gaining acceptance by wary tribes, he was a “heroically bad businessman,” impoverishing himself as he labored. Improbably, he secured J.P. Morgan as a benefactor, yet took so long to complete the project that he was forced to surrender rights to the work. Deluxe early volumes created some excitement, but interest had faded by the time Curtis finished the set. In 1935, Morgan’s heirs sold the archival materials for just $1,000.
Even if Curtis’s name is new to you, the photos you’ll “recognize immediately,” said Don Oldenburg in USA Today. His portraits of the Apache warrior Geronimo and of the Nez Perce’s Chief Joseph have become iconic. My sole complaint with this book is that the three-dozen images included are “not enough to satisfy the curiosity Egan’s storytelling arouses.” If you have $1.8 million, a complete set of the original prints can be yours, said David Holahan in CSMonitor.com. But Curtis’s work is most significant for the history it preserved. “It’s hard to put a price on that.”