Edward Curtis’ North American Indian project was one of the greatest creative accomplishments of the twentieth century and like many legendary artists before him, was not truly appreciated until after his death. Along with his ethnographic work Curtis was known as an innovative photographer in the early years of the field, yet when looking back on his story it’s clear Curtis was also like the classic entrepreneur.
A few core entrepreneurial characteristics shine through in his story:
Passion: This may be the single most cited trait of entrepreneurs, whether their passion lies in the discipline they’re in or the future they see. Curtis had two primary passions in life, photography and the culture/history of the native tribes of North America. He began photography early in life while bed-ridden as a child and mastered it throughout his life. He also made it his life goal to capture the culture and traditions of these native tribes before they disappeared, a passion that only grew with each day he spent on the project
Vision: Before an entrepreneur begins their journey, they first have a vision that inspires them and others. In his North American Indian project Curtis saw something no one else had come close to imagining. Not only was he part of a small group paying attention to the shrinking tribes, but his publication project was so ambitious and grand that no publisher knew how value it.
Fundraising: For many entrepreneurs, realizing their vision is dependent on their ability to sell that vision to those with the power to finance their early efforts. Curtis raised funds through a few different avenues including his own life savings, but his most famous investor was the legendary banker J.P. Morgan.
Creativity: Sometimes overlooked, this is one of the key strengths of entrepreneurs due to the constant need to adjust to the problems at hand. Curtis’ creativity was obvious in his photography and the design of his project, but he had to develop creative solutions to countless complex problems in his project. One such example is his persistent pursuit and eventual success in witnessing the secretive Hopi Snake Dance.
Resilience: Every entrepreneur faces setbacks, stumbles and barriers, and Curtis wasn’t immune to those. From issues as small as malfunctioning equipment to seemingly insurmountable challenges as the unexpected death of his primary investor, Curtis had no shortage of opportunities to display grit.
While his efforts didn’t result in generational wealth and fame he is widely recognized as one of the pioneers of photography, a visionary contributor the the ethnographic research of North America and the author of one of the most ambitious publications in the history of the United States. Most historic accounts will focus on those contributions alone, but any would-be entrepreneur would do well to learn from his journey as a shining example of what it means to be an entrepreneur.