Invited to join anthropological expeditions as a photographer of native tribes, Curtis was inspired to embark on the immense project that became his 20 volume work, The North American Indian. Covering over 80 tribes and comprising over 40,000 photographic images, this monumental work was supported by J.P. Morgan and President Theodore Roosevelt. Although today Curtis is regarded as one of the greatest American art photographers, in his time his work was harshly criticized by scholars and the project was a financial disaster.
Nevertheless, Curtis' work is an incredible record of Native American people, of their strength and traditional lifestyles before the white men came. His vision was affected by the times, which viewed the native peoples as a "vanishing race," and Curtis sought to record their ways before they completely vanished, using whatever remained of the old ways and people to do so. Curtis paid people to recreate scenes, and manipulated images to produce the effects he desired. He did not see how these people were to survive under the rule of the Euro-Americans, and so he did not record those efforts. In fact, their traditional lifestyles could not continue, and it was those that Curtis sought to document. Given the tragic history that ensued for these peoples, his work stands as a testament to their strength, pride, honor, beauty, and diversity, a record that can help their descendants regain places of pride in the world and also help others to better appreciate their true value.