Edward Curtis (1868-1952) is America’s most well known photographer of Native Americans. Chances are that you have seen one of his iconic, sepia-toned photographs of what he understood to be “the vanishing race” even if you do not know his name, as they are among the most frequently reproduced of all photographs from the early twentieth century. Most Curtis photographs circulating today were taken from his monumental work, The North American Indian (1907-1930), a twenty-volume photographic record and ethnography of many tribes of the western continent. With each volume accompanied by a portfolio of poster-size prints, these were among the most expensive books ever produced in the United States; indeed, they came in second at the time only to Audubon’s spectacular Birds of America. Fittingly, Curtis’s work was supported by some of the wealthiest and most influential men of his time, including George Bird Grinnell, J. P. Morgan, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Curtis was more than just a photographer and ethnographer. As demonstrated by In the Land of the Head Hunters, he was also a showman. Prior to making the film, he had put on an elaborate “musicale,” combining magic-lantern slides, a lecture, and an original musical score. Referred to in the press as a “picture opera,” it too filled the seats at Carnegie Hall, as Head Hunters would do a few years later. His experience with the musicale clearly influenced his decision to make a film, which he undertook on the same grand scale. Then, after producing In the Land of the Head Hunters and continuing for some years with further work on the photography project, Curtis made what seems to be a natural progression to Hollywood, where he worked for Cecil B. DeMille taking stills.
Curtis sold his copyright for In the Land of the Head Hunters to the American Museum of Natural History in 1924. In the 1930s, he liquidated all assets and materials of the North American Indian Corporation, selling them to a rare book dealer in Boston. Toward the end of his life, he explored the California hinterlands in search of gold. He died in Los Angeles in 1952 at the home of his daughter.