J. P. Morgan was only the richest man in turn-of-the-century America. Edward Curtis, the largely uneducated son of a tub-thumping preacher, entered his presence timidly, hoping to get a rich contribution. Curtis's mission, the focus of his life, was, once again, floundering, even though he had the backing of none other than the President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt.
What the self-made photographer dreamed of accomplishing was to chronicle the end times of traditional life in Native America. He clearly understood that the massive shifts in the lives of Lakota, Navajo, Comanche, and Arikara--and every other Native American from east to west--would doubtlessly alter forever the existence of this nation's first nations. That vision was an immense undertaking that required heavy funding, so Curtis's entry into the front office of this financial giant was well planned. He knew he could not fail.
Timothy Egan* says that what Curtis hadn't expected was the tycoon's sheer ugliness. This Steichen portrait lays heavy emphasis on the man's granite resolution and take-no-witnesses attitude. But that nose had become something extraordinary, "like the fog light of a ship, making it impossible to turn away." It was huge and it was red and inflamed, as it had been for years; and it left Curtis breathless for a moment or two.
But the man was on a mission that his life had become, a mission he would eventually sacrifice everything he had loved outside of the dream--the documentary work he wanted to do in all of Native America.
Curtis laid out the plan admirably; he had his words and approach in order. Morgan spent money lavishly on art; Curtis was producing it in this immense artistic project, a collection of unforgettable photographs that would cost institutions $5000 per subscription. Morgan understood that traditional Native life couldn't continue as it once had--the buffalo were gone. There was so much nobility in the character of Native people, Curtis told Morgan--could he count on his support?
"I will be unable to help you," the Wall Street banker told him.
Those words didn't stop Edward Curtis. The man was on a mission, a crusade. Without withdrawing an inch, he drew some of his photographs out from a portfolio, portraits that have since become famous.
He spread them out in front of J. P. Morgan, who looked closely but said nothing.
And then, Egan says, Edward Curtis showed him Mosa, the Mohave girl.
Here's how Timothy Egan describes the effect in J. P. Morgan: "She is a face-painted beauty with a careless gaze, skin as smooth as a bar of soap--just the jewel for Morgan the collector."
Morgan looked closely at Mosa, remained silent for a time, then told Curtis, "I will lend financial assistance for the publication of a set of books illustrated with photographs such as these."
Curtis demanded no salary for his work and, some years later, died alone and almost destitute; but his contribution to documenting quickly vanishing Native American peoples and cultures was immense. Had Morgan not come forward with finances, the entire project might have been doomed.
This is the portrait that steered the big banker into compliance, that put funds in Curtis's pocket, and that gave the photographer the wherewithal to continue.
Why Mosa? Good question. Egan implies there's a penitent sorrow in this face that Morgan thought would suggest his compassion.
But no one will ever know why this particular image, this portrait of a young Mohave girl, turned Morgan's opinion totally around.
What's in an image anyway? Why this one, when Curtis had shown him a dozen others, some of which have become far more familiar? Why her? Why Mosa?
No one knows.
Curtis got his financial support by way of a picture of a Mohave girl otherwise totally lost to history.
Only her face survives.
*Timothy Egan--Short Nights of the Shadow: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.