A Brief History of Photography and Philanthropy: Part 5: “A Mighty Fine Deed of Mr. Morgan”
Updated: Apr 28
Edward Curtis was having a very, very good day. It was early January 1906, and he had just walked out of a meeting with Wall Street financier J. P. Morgan. He came away with a promise of support for a project that was unprecedented in its scope: a 20-volume publication that would document in photographs and in writing the people and places of the American Indians. And it wasn’t just a token amount of support — it was the then astonishing sum of $75,000 (equivalent to $1.75 million in 2015 dollars).
Curtis was elated, but he noted that the gift came with some stipulations. First, it would be spread over a five-year period. That was manageable since travel to the places he wanted to document would be both slow and demanding. But Morgan also said that he would pay only for expenses — no salary or reimbursement for the time Curtis would spend. The latter made Morgan’s gift a challenge as well as a blessing. It meant Curtis would have to continue earning a living through his portrait studios while at the same time trying to carry out the biggest photographic project ever imagined.
Another challenge was that Morgan expected Curtis to sell copies of his books through a subscription process. Always the businessman, Morgan hoped to recoup some of the money he was giving to Curtis by selling many of the lavishly produced volumes to his wealthy friends. With an asking price of $3,000–$4,000 per set (about $79,000–$105,000 in 2015 dollars), the audience of potential buyers was limited indeed. Still, Curtis didn’t hesitate. He knew that if he didn’t act very soon much of what he wanted to photograph would disappear forever.
Within days Morgan’s promise became big news, including one now sad and ironic headline that said: “Morgan Money to Keep Indians from Oblivion.” Even President Roosevelt recognized the significance of the gift, writing to Curtis. “I congratulate you with all my heart. That is a mighty fine deed of Mr. Morgan.” The pressure was on Curtis to deliver, but he was a man who thrived on a giant vision and exacting standards.
What happened over the next two decades has been well-documented. Curtis continually struggled as he ran into one roadblock after another, and yet he relentlessly demanded the absolute highest quality for the printing and production of the volumes.
Morgan strongly objected to the escalating costs, but time and time again he came through with additional funding. When J.P. Morgan died unexpectedly in 1913, his son Jack put even further restrictions on Curtis’ project. Nonetheless, by the end of the project in 1930, the Morgans had contributed a breathtaking total of $400,000 for the project. In 2015 dollars, this is the equivalent of $8–10 million (depending upon when the money was contributed). It was and may still be the most significant philanthropic contribution ever made to a single photographer.
While the Morgan family’s contributions were breathtaking, it’s important to remember that Curtis was also raising money through selling subscriptions to the publication. Due to somewhat haphazard recordkeeping and to the breakup of individual sets for the gravure plates, it’s difficult to know exactly how many sets of the books were finally published. At least 242 are known to have been published, but it’s possible there were more. Regardless, it’s estimated that the subscription sales brought in at least twice and perhaps as much as three times the amount of funding that the Morgan family provided. This means the total cost to produce The North American Indian in today’s dollars was at least $25 million and perhaps as much as $35 million.
Today The North American Indian is recognized as the greatest achievement in photography of all time. Curtis took over 40,000 glass plate negatives of more than 80 different tribes, resulting in an unparalleled collection of images of a now-vanished Indian life. Equally as important were the 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Indian languages and songs that he recorded, along with his detailed notes about individual leaders, tribal traditions, ceremonies, clothing, and foods. Like most Western observers of the time, Curtis allowed his own biases and intentions to influence some of his work, and he has been appropriately criticized for deliberately posing people, removing more modern objects from scenes or otherwise trying to create imagery that fits into an idealized Western viewpoint. Nonetheless, what he was able to accomplish through Morgan’s philanthropy is undeniable.
Sadly, by the time he finished all 20 volumes, Curtis was left financially drained, utterly exhausted, and, at the time, mostly forgotten. He suffered a complete mental and physical breakdown, and when he died in 1952 the New York Times published only a brief obituary. It said that he was a well-known ethnographer of Indians and noted only in passing that he had also been a photographer. In the years since then, the true value of Curtis’ grand enterprise has been fully recognized. In 2012 a rare single, complete set of The North American Indian sold at auction for US $2.8 million.
Is there a lesson for today’s philanthropists in all of this? Several come to mind. First, philanthropists have to find leaders with a vision they believe in and help them realize their goals. But we shouldn’t expect every detail to be worked out in advance. Shortly after Curtis thought of the idea of producing The North American Indian he wrote to a colleague, “It’s such a big dream, I can’t see it all.” Yet in the end, he made the grandest of dreams come true.
Secondly, many of the challenges that philanthropists take on cannot be solved quickly. I’m regularly bemused by funders who support a campaign or project for three or four years and then pull out. It took Curtis 24 years and millions of (2015) dollars to complete his work, yet there is no doubt of its lasting significance. What would have happened if the Morgans ended the funding at any point along the way? Grand visions are just that — grand, and true genius, especially of the artistic kind, is rarely measurable. Sometimes it’s important to say, as J.P. Morgan did to Edward Curtis, “I like a man who attempts the impossible.”
Finally, it’s important to note that although the Morgan’s money ultimately made The North American Indian possible, it did so with an enormous toll on Curtis himself. By funding the product (the book) and not the person (Curtis’ time and labor), Morgan ensured that Curtis would struggle every step of the way. While today there is more recognition of the need to support the people who do the work some philanthropists still have a reluctance to fully fund all of the costs of a project even though they have the money to do so. Some foundations especially are known to put limits on funding for overhead or administrative costs, and these restrictions take their toll on an organization’s or individual’s ability to successfully complete the work. That hurts both the effort being funded and the funder by lowering the chances of reaching the desired goals.
Joseph Conrad said, “History repeats itself, but the special call of an art which has passed away is never reproduced. It is as utterly gone out of the world as the song of a destroyed wild bird.” Thankfully, Edward Curtis heeded his special call, and his dream will be forever with us because of J. P. Morgan’s special brand of philanthropy.
This article is part of the series A Brief History of Photography and Philanthropy: