Classic Gravure Corporation Presents
A Monument to the Indian Cultures of the American West and a Masterwork of 20th Century Photography

A limited edition created from the photogravure plates used in the 1907-1930 edition. Includes the foreword by Theodore Roosevelt and new introduction by Beaumont Newhall, photographic historian, and Fred Eggan, anthropologist.

The ordinary book…will last but a few generations. This publication should last a thousand years.

W.H. Holmes, Chief
______________________________________________________Bureau of American Ethnology – 1907

…. a monument to American constructive scholarship and research of a value unparalleled.

_____________________________________________________________Theodore Roosevelt – 1907

…. the most profound document of pure Indian culture ever made.

___________________________________________________________________A.D. Coleman – 1972

I congratulate Classic Gravure for undertaking the laborious task of completing this edition, fully in the spirit of its progenitor, with superb skill.

________________________________________________________________Beaumont Newhall – 1980



Every culture has its monuments: the murals at Pompeii, the stone fortresses of Machu Picchu, the silent portals of Stonehenge, the intricate tracing of the Aztec calendar stone. Each expresses the culture, the civilization of a particular people and their way of life. Each expresses a time, and a geography of survival and achievement. Together they make up the continuum of human existence, from prehistoric times up to the present.

The Native American Indian peoples have left few monuments testifying to their uniqueness and significance as a people. In contrast to other civilizations, firmly rooted in particular locations over time, the American Indian peoples were kept constantly on the move by the rapid westward expansion of white civilization. Sometimes they traded or conquered each other’s lands, while retreating inexorably westward. Finally, they were transplanted to designated reservation lands, often far away from where they considered their homelands. To be. Moreover, all Indian peoples worshipped the innocent, yet all-encompassing power of the untouched wilderness. The land itself was integral to their way of life.

As a result, they took their monuments with them, in the form of crafts, songs, talismans, stories, ceremonies, hunts and dances. In a sense, it was this respect for untouched nature, their concept of harmony within it rather than control over it, that created the cultural vulnerability of the Native American Indian. We have come to identify these peoples with the general regions they occupied, and with what they took with them, rather than with what they left behind.

One man, Edward S. Curtis, recognized the cultural vulnerability of the American Indian, first as a mountaineer, and then as a photographer. As early as the end of the 19th century, young Curtis recognized the inevitability of the extinction of American Indian culture and resolved to document the power of the people’s images with pen and camera, before they were lost forever. It was for him a personal obsession, threatening at times his finances, his family’s survival, and eventually threatening his physical health. Over a period of thirty years, he created a record of all the Native tribes of Western America, a record that would become their monument for future generations.

The result of Curtis’ life’s work is The North American Indian, a massive ethnographic and photographic work, published between 1907 and 1930. It comprises twenty volumes and twenty portfolios. The volumes are illustrated with 1500 photographs, handprinted from copper plates. This is a sophisticated, highly advanced, intaglio (etched) printing process. The twenty portfolios, containing thirty-six large photogravure prints each, bring the total to more than 2200 images.

To the extent that we and future generations can appreciate, and perhaps even empathize with the images of this monumental work, we can be enriched by America’s indigenous past. For overall, the cultures of the Native American Indian peoples are, like the monuments of other civilizations, images of the entire human race, that larger continuity that unites the threads of our individual lives.


Beginning in 1898, Edward Curtis roamed the West from the Rio Grande to the Arctic Circle, working in three distinct media: written accounts, photographic images, and sound recordings. He lived on intimate terms with the tribes of the mountains, the deserts, and the plains, frequently traveling by packhorse, or driving his horse-drawn wagon, laden with cumbersome glass-plate negatives and bottles of chemicals. He returned again and again to each tribe until he had gained their confidence and had penetrated, as Theodore Roosevelt once said, “into that strange spiritual and mental life of theirs from whose innermost recesses all white men are forever barred.” For, as Curtis himself explained, “…the ordinary investigator [who goes] among them to secure information for a magazine article, they do not favor, but they have grasped the idea that this is to be a permanent memorial of their race.”]

He took over 40,000 photographs of more than eighty tribes and supervised a staff of up to sixty assistants, who helped him gather and arrange the ethnographic data. The entire work was edited by F.W. Hodge, Chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology, thus assuring its scholarship. Then the entire project, which Curtis estimated would take five or six years, and cost about $25,000, extended over three decades and cost approximately a million and a half dollars.

Fortunately, in 1906 support came in the form of a grant from J.P. Morgan, then the most powerful financier in America. In a singularly enlightened stroke of philanthropy, Morgan agreed to fund Curtis’ field research for five years, at $15,000 a year. Publication costs were to be supported by subscriptions; 500 sets were to be offered at $3,000 (later increased to $4,500). And so the work continued, although not without subsequent financial difficulties and great personal sacrifice.

Always Curtis felt a great sense of urgency and mission:

“The great changes in practically every phase of the Indians’ life that had taken place, especially within recent years, has been such that had the time for colleting much of the material, both descriptive and illustrative, herein recorded, been delayed, it would have been lost forever. The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other; consequently, the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the modes of life of one of the greatest races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time. It is this need that has inspired the present work.”
Introduction, The North American Indian

Curtis was trying to push time back, to erase from his photographs all signs of degradation and despair. He wanted to reconstruct the images of the Native American Indian before the devastating effects of white civilization were complete. Always he held before himself an ideal which his photographs would illuminate: “The Indian as he was in his normal, noble life so people will know he was no debauched vagabond but a man of proud stature and noble heritage.” For this reason, some have considered Curtis a romantic, “dressing up” the Indians, posing them artificially as “noble savages.” Yet today who can even gaze for a moment into the faces of such personalities as Geronimo, Red Could, Chief Joseph, or even an ordinary “Hopi Man,” without seeing the authentic people. Using only natural light and unadorned backgrounds, he captured in his portraits the integrity and mystique of the American Indian.

Those who, at one time, dismissed Curtis as a mere romantic aesthete were perhaps blinded by the artistic qualities of his large photographs: the skillful composition, the painterly quality of light and shadow, and the bold, sculptural forms. These critics, perhaps, failed to integrate the mass of ethnographic documentation which filled the accompanying twenty volumes. They, without precedent, synthesize aesthetics with ethnographic science.

Edward S. Curtis is today recognized as a romantic visionary and, as Fred Eggan Tells us, he is recognized as a “pioneer of visual anthropology, a new discipline in which work and picture enhance each other, producing an effect greater than either alone.”

The publication of The North American Indian was completed in the fateful year of 1930, and the Great Depression soon crushed Curtis’ initial success. Only 214 of the projected 500 subscriptions were sold. Depressed and exhausted, Curtis’ health disintegrated. The publishing company that Morgan had helped establish was then liquidated and the photogravure plates, and remaining unbound material was sold to a Boston bookstore. Eventually the store bound a few more copies, bringing the total number of sets produced to 272.

Curtis recovered his health, and went on to pursue other interests, among them mining in California and still-photography in Hollywood. He died in Los Angeles in 1952, a forgotten man.


Over the years, those 272 completed sets of The North American Indian resided in rare book rooms, museums, and the homes of private collectors, inaccessible to the public. But so remarkable a work could not remain buried forever. Photographic historian Beaumont Newhall arranged the first large post-humous showing of Curtis’ photogravures in 1952, at the George Eastman House. It was, understandably, a revelation to the photographic community. Through the growing appreciation of photography as an art form in the 1960s and 1970s, interest in Curtis’ work grew, while a new awareness of the American Indian gave fresh value to his ethnographic achievement. Numerous books and articles about him reproduced his imagery more widely and to greater public acclaim than he could have dreamed.
The original production, in its twenty elegantly bound volumes, and its gathering of stately folio plates, was printed on the finest handmade papers of the time. The later articles and books, however presented Curtis’ photographs poorly. The magnificent images were necessarily reduced and frequently crowded two or three to a page. Some were even printed in grainy dull grays or smudgy blacks. Moreover, the text was usually reduced to mere captions, and Curtis’ photographs appear strangely divorced from their real meaning when divested of their accompanying data and anecdotes. Ironically, the more Curtis’ work was reproduced, the further removed it became from his original intent and artistry. Therefore, the original photogravure prints were being avidly sought by collectors who paid up to $3,000 for the best examples. The rare intact set of The north American Indian that found its way to the marketplace, realized up to $100,000.
Edward S. Curtis’ greatest photographs, “The Vanishing Race”, “Canon de Chelly”, and “Black Eagle” captured the American imagination, and assumed a permanent place in American iconographic heritage. Meanwhile, the vast body of his work remained almost inaccessible, except to a few scholars and photographic historians.


In 1977, Classic Gravure was formed to make Curtis’ The North American Indian once more available to a discriminating audience, and to do so with no sacrifice of its remarkable aesthetic and documentary quality. To accomplish this, the entire collection of original copper photogravure plates was acquired. The edition is a faithful continuation in the original photogravure of Curtis’ work: 228 new sets will be produced to complement the 272 previously issued. Thus, the scheme of Edward S. Curtis and J.P. Morgan, envisioning 500 completed sets of The North American Indian, will be fulfilled.
Working within the traditions of fine photographic bookmaking of the earlier twentieth century, the master craftsman of Classic Gravure have equaled and, perhaps, surpassed the standards of production realized in Curtis’ own time.


Edward Curtis’ comprehensive portrayal of American Indian life did not depend on photography alone, but combined photographs with a detailed text providing a framework within which the images could be interpreted. In keeping with Curtis’ intention, the Classic Gravure edition is a broad representation of his images accompanied by a judicious abridgement of his text.
From among over 2200 photogravures in the original twenty-volume, 444 of the best examples were carefully selected to represent all tea res of study that were of concern to him: physiognomy, dress, dwellings, industries, arts, customs, ceremonies, and religions. Selections from his text were made to enhance the themes of the photographs. Curtis’ unique and engaging style of presenting ethnographic information was preserved, and his working was neither modernized nor changed.


The large photogravure images (19” x 23”) testify to Curtis’ remarkable photographic artistry; the small images (11” x 13”) display a more anthropologic detail. The large portfolio, containing 36 prints, and the small, 75 prints, accompany Curtis’ ethnographic text.


The images in The North American Indian have a remarkably rich quality because they are hand-printed by photogravure, an unsurpassed process of photographic reproduction.
Initially, the negative is etched into a copper plate by a complex chemical process. The etched plate is then inked and the surface carefully wiped clean, leaving the ink only within the etched areas.
Fine paper is dampened to soften the fibre and facilitate absorption of the ink. Each sheet of paper is laid over the plate and printed, one at a time, on a flatbed etching press under tremendous pressure. The final print must then be flattened and dried over a period of several days.
The photogravure process is no longer used commercially because it requires much hand labor and painstaking craftmanship. No other printing process, past or present, can convey the broad range of tones, the depth, and the glow of Curtis’ fine photographic prints.
The small photogravure set contains one hand-colored print, faithfully executed according to Curtis’ specifications.


In this edition, the paper is specially commissioned and produced to exacting specifications by John Koller of Hand Made Papers in Connecticut, a firm noted for its fine custom printmaking papers. The paper used in this edition is 100% long fibre cotton, acid free, and of archival quality. The body and finish of the paper have been created to be receptive to the photogravure impression. Edward S. Curtis’ signature has been incorporated into each folio sheet as the watermark.


The text paper is handmade Fabriano Umbria, imported from the Fabriano paper mill in Italy. Established in the fourteenth century, it is the oldest continuously operating paper mill in Western Europe.
The text volumes are printed by letterpress at the Amaranth Press of San Francisco. The typeface, set my monotype, is 16pt. Bembo, a classic old-style typeface noted for its elegance and legibility.


After a most exhaustive search for a bindery, Roswell Bookbinding in Arizona was chosen to execute these hand-crafted bindings. The large and small portfolios and text volume are hard-cover, gold stamped, and full leather, modeled after Curtis’ original portfolio design. The insides of the portfolios are covered by fine linen, and the text volume is finished with hand-executed endpaper from England.


For the second time in this century, the public… institutions, regional libraries, American Indian organizations, scholars, and private collectors of Western Americana and Photographica – have an opportunity to participate in a momentous publishing event.


**The preceding text are excerpt’s from ‘The North American Indian’ written by Edward Sheriff Curtis, published between 1907 and 1930. The original work is in the public domain, and the text has been used unchanged. For more information, please refer to the original source.