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A clamor for Curtis

Val CurtisThe recent publication of Timothy Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis has caused a boom in requests to see our copy of the original limited edition of Curtis’ landmark 20-volume The North American Indian. Just yesterday we had two independent researchers and a group of ten who all came to see it.

Pictured is one of the resent researchers, Val Priscilla Curtis, a descendent of the photographer, who said she was awed at the experience of seeing it first-hand. It’s an epic work, and an epic story.

The Object: Full sets of the Curtis work are rare; 272 bound sets were sold. Most are held by libraries and museums. When sets do come up at auction they can command a price well in excess of a million dollars. The UO copy, as mentioned in Egan’s book, holds a special rank among extent sets because it is an “association” copy. Just as a Bible owned by Abraham Lincoln would be considered much more valuable than an identical Bible owned by nobody in particular, our set is special because it previously belonged to the Curtis family. We acquired it in 1993, in part by “trading up” a set we had owned for many years.

As you can see, the images in the print folios are quite large–to give you a sense of scale, the term librarians use for volumes of this size is “elephant folio.” They are printed through the photogravure process, on very fine tissue paper adhered to mats. The plates are loose, with individual wrappers, in large portfolios. The quality is excellent, with a high level of detail and rich sepia tones. The twenty volumes of plates are accompanied by volumes of text (think encyclopedia size) that are also illustrated. Although these originals are gorgeous, hauling them out for use causes some wear and tear, no matter how careful we are. We strongly encourage people to use surrogates (check out this Library of Congress site!) instead of asking to see the originals. Because of its rarity, its value, its size and fragility, access to the UO set is limited.*

The Story: Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) grew up in Seattle, WA and began photography in 1887, taking his first photo of a Native American in 1895. He photographed on the Harriman expedition to Alaska in 1899 and the following year, went to the Blackfleet in Montana.  In 1906, J.P. Morgan agreed to sponsor publication of the North American Indian project, which eventually included 40,000 photographs and 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of speech and music. The project was a massive undertaking that occupied Curtis for the next 24 years and in the course of it, Edward Curtis fell on hard times. He had an acrimonious divorce in 1919 and he destroyed his glass-plate negatives to keep his wife, Clara, from acquiring them through the settlement. (She still got possession of his cameras, remaining negatives and the Seattle studio, and ran it for many years.) He was arrested for failure to pay alimony and had limited or no contact with his four children until the late 1920s. The purchase price of the set was very high, not surprising given the production quality and the massive scale, and sales were limited. Neither Morgan nor Curtis profited, and the photographer eventually transferred copyright to Morgan’s son to raise some much needed cash. In 1935 the Morgan estate sold its remaining holdings from the project to Lauriat’s bookstore in Boston; some 40 years later photographer Karl Kernberger saw the Lauriat holdings, which included photogravures, negatives, and the original printing plates, and brought Edward Curtis’ work to a wide and appreciative audience.

Indians and Photographers: Edward Curtis is now very well known indeed. Which is funny, because at the turn of the century the famous photographer of American Indians was Lee Moorhouse. Who? Lee Moorhouse (1850-1926) lived in Pendleton, OR, and his extensive library of glass plate negatives is also held by UO (PH036). Moorhouse had a large collection of “Indian curios” which he used to adorn his subjects. While the objects are legitimate regalia, they were not necessarily used appropriately: Apache moccasins may be paired with a Cayuse cap on a Nez Perce sitter. In fact, Moorhouse knew Curtis and lent some of his “curios” to his fellow photographer for the same purpose. Make sure to read the Library of Congress’ online essay Edward S. Curtis In Context to appreciate both the strengths and the weaknesses of photographic documentation of tribal peoples of the time. What we inherit from these photographers and their colleagues is a body of work that is often beautiful and moving, but not necessarily accurate. Photographs are shaped as much by the lens of the photographer’s culture, intentions and assumptions as by his camera.

  • More about Curtis: There are many books available about Edward Curtis. Reprints of The North American Indian are widely available (although they are often selected portions, and printed in more convenient sizes) and the Library of Congress’ American Memory Project has an excellent site that presents digital versions of the prints.
  • More about Moorhouse: See our digital collection Picturing the Cayuse or read the terrific book by Steven J. Grafe, Peoples of the Plateau: The Indian Photographs of Lee Moorhouse, 1898-1915. (We are happy to report that we are close to completing comprehensive digitization of the Moorhouse collection–stay tuned!)
  • More about our tribal collections: Check out our digital collection,  Tribal Legacies, to see the amazing scope of our holdings about North American native peoples!

*Limited access means: Sorry, we can’t haul them out on a moment’s notice. For these, we really need a prior, confirmed appointment to ensure we have the staffing needed to present high-value items securely. We do have a smaller facsimile edition that you can see during our regular hours with no appointment necessary. We’re a public institution so we have a moral obligation to make our holdings available for use, but we also have a moral obligation to be good stewards of our heritage, and protect these babies. We always do our best to meet your needs as well as those of generations to come.

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