1892–1899: THE EARLY YEARS | At the age of 24 Edward Curtis started working as a studio portrait photographer in Seattle. He also experimented with landscape and mountaineering photographs on extended trip to Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. By 1895, Curtis began photographing Native Americans. He took many pictures of the Alaskan/Yukon Gold Rush of 1897, and was the official expedition photographer on E.H. Harriman’s Alaskan expedition of 1899. It was on this very expedition that Curtis discovered his passion for documenting Native peoples’ ways of life. During this time he became involved with the Pictorialist movement, which increasingly influenced his work.
1900–1915: THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN PROJECT | During these 15 years, Curtis devoted his time almost exclusively to his project on Native American life and culture, with ever-decreasing amounts of time spent doing studio portraiture. in 1911, he created his epic Picture Opera Musicale with original, Native-inspired musical score and large orchestra. He began filming Native Americans in 1901, and created his first feature-length narrative documentary film in 1914, In the Land of the War Canoes. He also illustrated popular books and magazines, including the British Journal of Photography, the American Museum Journal, and the Flute of the Gods.
HIS LATER YEARS: 1916–1930 | After 1915 Curtis worked on the completion and the publication of The North American Indian book series, and on a variety of Hollywood motion pictures, e.g. The Ten Commandments. He produced a series of blue-toned silver prints, known under the names of the “Aphrodite Series” and “Hollywood Stills”. He also did very few portraiture, but was active as a cameraman. After 1928 no significant work was produced until his death in 1952.
PHOTOGRAVURES | Curtis employed an unusually wide variety of photographic processes. The vast majority of his prints, approximately 98%, were printed as photogravures, and virtually all them were produced The North American Indian. Curtis used two standard sizes, 5 x 7″ (or reverse), and approximately 12 x 16″ (or reverse). He favored three hand-made papers: Japanese Vellum, Dutch “Van Gelder,” and Japanese “Tissue,” also known as India Proof Paper.
PLATINUM PRINTS | Curtis created a body of platinum prints, comprising of 1/4–1/2 of one percent of his extant body of work, which vary in size from approximately 4 x 5″ to 24 x 32″. Platinum prints larger than 12 x 16″ are scarce. Varying paper weights and surfaces were employed.
GOLDTONE PRINTS | Curtis’ wide variety of silver prints were most frequently goldtones, orotones or “curt-tones”. These comprise approximately one-fourth to one half of one percent of his extant work. In size they range from 4 x 5”, called a salesman’s sample, to 18 x 22”. The larger sizes are extremely rare. Based on current data, goldtones used a gelatin silver emulsion, which was suspended on glass (vs. paper), and after development were backed with gold-hued bronzing powders. Curtis’ goldtone prints are virtually always framed in one of several original frames styles, most typically in a “bat-wing” style gesso and compo over wood.
GELATIN SILVER PRINTS | Curtis also created paper-based gelatin silver prints for sale and/or exhibitions. They are virtually always sepia toned, and more rare than platinum prints or orotones. There is a small body of warm-toned gelatin silver prints, which incorporate a barely discernible screen pattern, therefore often confused with platinum prints. His untoned, gelatin silver prints or “reference prints” generally have a semi-glossy or glossy surface and are typically approximately 6 x 8″ image size on slightly larger, single-weight paper.
GOLDTONE PAPER PRINTS | Curtis’ goldtone paper prints are extremely rare, and were produced principally in 1899 and 1900. He used a single weight paper, adding goldtones during the printing-out process. They are marked by their fine grain structure, sharp resolution and russety sepia tone. The majority are approximately 12 x 16″ (or reverse) in size.
CYANOTYPES | Cyanotypes are prints that are blue-hued during the printing-out process. Curtis created a large body of cyanotypes, presumably, virtually all of his 40,000+ negatives were initially printed as cyanotypes, however, few of them survived.
HAND-COLORED GELATIN SILVER PRINTS | An extremely small body of hand-colored gelatin silver and platinum photographs exist. The coloring was done with watercolors and oils. Other experimental prints appear to have employed a gum process and/or ink. A small body of Curtis’ lantern slides still exist, some of which are hand-colored.
BLUE-TONE GELATIN SILVER PRINTS | Between 1916–1930, Curtis produced a series of blue-toned silver prints known under the names of the “Aphrodite Series” and “Hollywood Stills.” These should not be confused with his cyanotypes.
Curtis did not create individual, thematic portfolios in the manner of many contemporary photographers. He did, however, create twenty portfolios as part of his magnum opus The North American Indian. Each set of these rare books (done in an edition of approximately 272, of a projected edition of 500) comprises 722 large-format original photogravures contained in the twenty portfolios. These portfolios were released during the period 1907–1930 on a complete set, subscription basis.
Curtis also contributed over 100 photographs to the two-volume Harriman Alaskan Expedition souvenir albums. These albums of over 240 gelatin silver prints were done in an edition of approximately twenty-five.
Curtis undoubtedly created other albums of original photographs and at least one example of his work with the mountaineering group the Mazamas Club is known to exist.
The exact size of the early volumes and portfolios edition is not-confirmed. Of a proposed 500 it is believed that less than 300 were actually printed. Today at least 220 complete original sets of The North American Indian are still intact, approximately ninety percent of those are in institutional collections. The following is a rough guide to the number of prints, by media, believed to exist. Curtis did not edition his individual prints.
GOLDTONES, CURT-TONES, OROTONES | Curtis printed approximately sixty to seventy of his negatives as goldtones. Curtis’ individual goldtone images range from 1 to over 500 impressions for “The Vanishing Race”. Of the majority of the remaining images, a smaller number of prints exist. Curtis’ most popular size for his goldtones was 11x14″, followed by 8x10″, 14x17″ (rare), and 18x22″ (extremely rare).
PLATINUM PRINTS | Approximately 400–800 negatives were printed as platinum prints. Possibly as few as 200 negatives were printed as exhibition or sale prints, typically in either 6x8″ or 12x16″ format. Generally, there are fewer than four or five prints per negative. Several of the most popular images are estimated to have forty to eighty examples in various sizes in existence. There are probably 200-300 platinum prints of “The Vanishing Race”, ranging in size from 6x8” to 17x22”.
SILVER PRINTS | Untoned silver “reference” prints survive of over 1,000 negatives, although most of these are among the ones originally filed with the Copyright Office. Generally there are only one or two reference prints that survived of any given negative outside of the two copies originally submitted to the Copyright Office. Toned silver prints exist from several hundred negatives but generally only one to five prints exist from any individual negative. Less than 100 toned silver prints were created as “border prints” (see illustration). These are quite scarce, with generally only one or two prints per negative.
CYANOTYPES | Of the 40,000-50,000 cyanotype prints presumed to have been created, at least one for virtually every negative, only a few hundred appear to have survived.
EXPERIMENTAL PRINTS | Hand-colored and other experimental prints are extremely rare.
POSTHUMOUS ORIGINAL PRINTS & REPRODUCTIONS | These continue to be produced in a wide variety of open- and close-end editions, in at least nine different print media.
AVAILABILITY & PRICING
Availability of the existing prints varies greatly with medium, image, and size. Many non-gravures are unique and come on the market only once in ten to twenty years. Other non-gravure prints have more impressions extant and are therefore easier to source. Most photogravures, of which approximately eighty to ninety impressions of each image have become available individually over the past century, can generally be located and purchased within weeks or a few months; however, the more valuable photogravures have become increasingly difficult to source.
Vintage print values range dramatically depending on image, medium, size, print quality and print condition. Smaller, volume-size photogravures generally command moderately high prices, approximately $15,000–20,000. Larger photogravures can trade for up to $80,000–90,000. Complete, original volumes from The North American Indian can auction at up to over $2 million for exceptional examples.
HIGH AUCTION SALES
Sothebys, April 7th, 2008, Lot Number 9—$169,000
Chief Joseph 1904, Platinum, 16 x 12″, Very Vare, Signed In Ink On Recto, Mounted On Board, Condition Good
Complete set of The North American Indian
Christie’s, April 10, 2012—$2,882,500
Twenty Volumes & Twenty Portfolios, Van Gelder Paper, Condition Poor–Fair
Curtis, Edward S. (1868-1952). The North American Indian being a Series of Volumes Picturing and Describing the Indians of the United States and Alaska. Edited by Frederick Webb Hodge. Foreword by Theodore Roosevelt. Field Research conducted under the patronage of J. Pierpont Morgan. [Cambridge, Mass.], 1907–1930.
Auction Description: Together 40 volumes: text in 20 volumes, 4 (313 x 239 mm); Supplementary Large Plates in 20 portfolios, large folio (582 x 239 mm). Text in original publisher’s brown half morocco gilt, top edges gilt, others uncut, most stamp-signed by H. Blackwell. Portfolios in original half morocco, original cloth ties.
Complete: Text volumes: 1,511 illustrations, comprising 1,505 photogravures, 4 maps and 2 diagrams. Portfolios: 723 photogravures in sepia on full sheets with deckle edges preserved (numbered 1–722 with two plates numbered 400); letterpress index leaves in each portfolio.
Limited Edition, number 435 of 500 proposed sets (but probably only 272 sets produced), this copy on Japan vellum, volume one signed by Edward S. Curtis and dated 1907. The exact number of sets that were printed on Japan vellum is not known (see note below).
Provenance: Ms. Emma Marburg, Baltimore, Maryland, original subscriber.
Winner of numerous awards and prizes for his studio portraiture, landscape photography, Pictorialist work and his Native American project. Credited with creating the most extensive (and expensive) photographic and photo-ethnographic project ever undertaken by one person. Numerous one-person exhibitions throughout the U.S.; successful and extensive lecture tours; created a touring lantern slide production accompanied by a live orchestra entitled Picture Opera Musicale. During an international tour of two group exhibitions of photographs from the U.S., Curtis made the first film footage of Native Americans (1903) and the first full-length feature film on same (1914.)
In addition, he made over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of Native American language and music and created thousands of pages of highly respected anthropological text. During the 1920s, Curtis was Chair of the Indian Welfare League, which was engaged in numerous activities to advance understanding of and appreciation for our Native peoples.
Curtis is reputedly the most widely collected fine art photographer (public and private collections) in the U.S. and possibly the world.
Informed purchases within the Curtis oeuvre, require distinguishing between vintage prints, later prints created during Curtis’ lifetime, posthumous original prints (printed from Curtis vintage negatives), reproductions in a wide variety of media, and intentional fakes.
REPRINTS, REPRODUCTIONS & FAKES | There are many reprints, reproductions and a moderate number of fakes of Curtis’ work. It is critical that a collector are well-informed before purchasing Curtis’ work presented to be vintage and/or created during Curtis’ lifetime. Many of Curtis’ photogravure plates have been reprinted numerous times since the 1960s. Various individuals and businesses have controlled the original copper photogravure printing plates still in existence. Vintage photogravures are easily distinguishable by the paper support material used. Each of the three original etching stocks have a distinct weight, texture, surface, fiber structure, etc. To a trained eye, all restrikes are easily distinguishable as such. The one exception is a very small body of major images that were surreptitiously restruck on a tissue-like paper in the 1980s. It takes a highly trained eye and a magnifying device to clearly identify these fakes. Curtis goldtones have been both legitimately recreated and faked posthumously. The Curtis Centennial Project, Inc. has been creating contemporary goldtones from its archive of vintage Curtis negatives since in 1998. These are clearly delineated in a variety of ways both externally and in the glass plate itself. Jean-Anthony DuLac created a small body of goldtones in the 1970s, which are not clearly or easily delineated from the vintage ones. The small body of intentional fakes that were created principally in the 1980s likewise require a trained eye to distinguish them from the originals.
While we know of no examples of paper-based, non-gravure intentional fakes, creation of these will probably not be far off, as prices for Curtis’ platinum prints, in particular, have soared. Also, being largely in the public domain, innumerable Curtis images have been reproduced in everything from inexpensive knock-offs (ink jet prints, etc.) to fairly expensive platinum prints.
Curtis Centennial Project, Inc. has been creating contemporary, limited edition prints in a variety of media, including cyanotype, silver, platinum, photolithograph since 1998. These posthumous, original prints, made from Curtis’ vintage negatives, not reproduced from prints, are clearly denoted by the contemporary copyright information embedded in each print, as well as other indicia. While these have been widely exhibited internationally, few have come on the market for sale.
PRINT & MOUNT SIZES | Curtis’ vintage prints range in size from 4 x 5″ to 24 x 32″, or larger. The vast majority of his prints are approximately 5 x 7″ or 12 x 16″ (photogravures), 6 x 8″ or 12 x 16″ (platinum & silver prints) or 8 x 10″ and 11 x 14″ (goldtones). All media include horizontal and vertical images. The smaller photogravures are printed on 9 x 12″ hand-made paper, and the larger photogravures are printed on 18 x 22″ sheets of hand-made etching stock or, in the case of the premium “tissue” prints, the “tissue” paper is slightly larger than the image and then under and over-matted with the 18 x 22″ sheets (slightly smaller for the under mat).
Most of the smaller photogravures were originally bound in books and the larger ones were loose in portfolios. The folio size “tissue” photogravures were mounted on a “Vellum” type paper and over-matted with Van Gelder paper. Goldtones, being printed on glass, are never mounted but virtually always framed. The majority of the silver and platinum prints are unmounted but some platinum prints are adhered to single, double or triple layers of handmade, deckled edged, single weight paper. Some silver and platinum prints are occasionally mounted on heavy, stiff board.
Originally Curtis worked with large glass plate negatives up to 14 x 17″ and possibly larger, later negatives (post 1900) were typically 6 x 8”. Curtis is believed to have created 40,000–50,000 negatives of North American Indians, and at least 10,000–20,000 studio portraits, landscapes, gold rush and Harriman expedition photographs.