July 08, 2009 Amon Carter Museum Acquires Rare 20-volume Photography Book and Portfolio Set

Fort Worth, TX, July 8, 2009—The Amon Carter Museum announces it has acquired a rare, complete set of Edward Sheriff Curtis’ The North American Indian (1907–1930), one of the most comprehensive records of American Indian life.

The set includes 20 volumes of illustrated books, each accompanied by a portfolio of approximately 36 large hand-pulled photogravures of American Indians that Curtis made between 1903 and 1928. In total, the books comprise more than 1,500 photogravures in addition to the 722 large photogravures in the portfolios. (A photogravure is an image produced from a photographic negative transferred to a metal plate and etched in. The printing plate is then used to make beautifully rich reproductions of the original image. Each print is hand-inked and pulled.)

The North American Indian is one of the most important objects in the history of photography and a work of incredible beauty,” says John Rohrbach, senior curator of photographs. “Ownership of this complete original subscription set further solidifies the museum’s standing as a major resource for American art and culture.”

Convinced that American Indian cultures across the United States were on the verge of vanishing, in 1899 Curtis undertook the momentous task of collecting anthropological information on more than 80 American Indian tribes across the West. Through extensive texts, audio recordings, and photographs, he documented the appearance, history, and practices of tribes ranging from the Inuit people of the far north to the Hopi people of the Southwest. He took more than 40,000 photographs over the course of his decades-long research, and with financial assistance from J. Pierpont Morgan and the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, Curtis assembled these images and accompanying information into The North American Indian, a lavish presentation that became one of the most expensive undertakings in the history of book production. “The result is a masterwork of visual anthropology,” Rohrbach says.

“This acquisition complements the Amon Carter Museum’s holdings of great western artists, from Karl Bodmer to Frederic Remington,” Director Ron Tyler says. “Additionally, it provides a key bridge between our important mid-19th-century photographic portraits of American Indians and works by 20th-century photographers, like Laura Gilpin’s extensive depictions of the Navajo.”

Although 500 sets of The North American Indian were planned, the project halted at the onset of the Great Depression. Curtis finished only 222 sets before he went bankrupt, and historians estimate that far fewer than this number exist today. The project was largely forgotten until the 1970s when a renewed interest in the history of photography encouraged scholars to take a new look at the work.

“Today, The North American Indian is widely heralded as a masterpiece production of unparalleled scope and splendor,” Tyler says. “We are privileged to own it and look forward to sharing it with our visitors.”

The museum will open an exhibition of The North American Indian in mid-December 2009.