"I like a man who attempts the impossible," Morgan told him.
In the introduction to the first volume, Curtis described Native Americans as at one with "the phenomena of the universe — the trees and shrubs, the sun and stars, the lightning and rain."
"There is scarcely an act in the Indian's life that does not involve some ceremonial performance or is not itself a religious act," he wrote. In 1910, these were radical ideas for a white man to put forward.
In the end, the project took 30 years instead of five, as Curtis traveled back and forth across the U.S. some 122 times. He captured Native American life as it was, amid vast and remote landscapes, and he developed an aesthetic that influenced John Ford, Ansel Adams and many other artists.
The work, and the passion Curtis put into it, ruined his body and his marriage and left him broke. But he finished what he had proposed to Morgan: 20 volumes with 2,200 original photographs and 4,000 pages of text.
Curtis' achievement was to meld compassion with great vision, but his work was largely forgotten by the time he died in Los Angeles in 1952.
Now Egan's excellent book stands as a fitting tribute to an American original who fought for a people with his camera and his art.