For 30 years Edward Curtis photographed this country’s native peoples. His images, once nearly forgotten, are now as admired as they are coveted.
Edward S. Curtis’ epic work, The North American Indian, stretches across 20 Moroccan leather–bound volumes and 20 portfolios of photogravure prints. The project, totaling some 4,000 pages of text and 2,200 pictures, led him on a journey from the Oklahoma plains to Puget Sound and the Alaskan tundra and ultimately took almost three decades to complete. From the outset Curtis’s sweeping goal was nothing less than to create an enduring record of Native American life in the West.
But by the time he finished the last volume in 1930, Curtis was on the verge of mental and physical collapse. He disappeared—it’s believed he checked into a sanitarium—and resurfaced two years later, when he moved in with his daughter. The country, which had endured a world war and was heading into a depression, showed little interest in his luxurious photographic portfolios. In the end just 272 complete sets of The North American Indian were published. Curtis went from being a friend of a president (Teddy Roosevelt was an early fan) and of tycoons (J. P. Morgan covered the first five years of his expenses) to being broke and forgotten. At his death in 1952, The New York Times ran a 75-word obituary that concluded with "Mr. Curtis was also a photographer."
In recent years, however, Curtis’s reputation has come in line with the heroic scope of his work. A documentary film by Anne Makepeace, which looks at the complex relationship that Native Americans have with the photographer’s oeuvre—to some it is an invaluable record, to others a kind of cultural theft—was one of 15 Academy Award finalists in 2001. A museum show of Curtis’s work mounted by scholar, dealer, and collector Christopher Cardozo has traveled to some 50 nations. And Marianne Wiggins’s recent novel The Shadow Catcher is the just the latest book inspired by his legend. Christie’s specialist Laura Paterson is hardly alone in her be-lief that Curtis’s pictures and writing make up "one of the most important documents in American history." And prices are beginning to reflect that.
In October 2005 Christie’s sold a pristine complete set of The North American Indian to a collector for $1.4 million, the first time a single lot in a U.S. photo auction topped the million-dollar mark. That was the moment when "everyone realized the game had changed," says Seattle dealer Lois Flury. "I had to revalue my entire collection." The price could have gone even higher: According to Paterson, at least one of the underbidders "still rues the fact that he didn’t raise his paddle once more."
The seductive appeal of Curtis’s images has never been in doubt. Purportedly, when he went to see J. P. Morgan for funding in 1906, the financier was ready to hustle him out the door when a striking portrait Curtis had taken of a young Indian woman stopped him cold. Morgan agreed then and there to underwrite Curtis’s work for five years.
It was a costly and laborious enterprise. In the beginning Curtis traveled with dozens of assistants from one reservation to the next, lugging massive box cameras and fragile glass plates over shoddy (or nonexistent) roads in unreliable cars and horse-drawn carts. They interviewed everyone from children to tribal elders, took pictures of ceremonies, and recorded languages and songs. Curtis had to work hard to win the trust of the chiefs and medicine men, but after a few years his reputation spread and he found that more tribes were eager to cooperate with him.
Curtis has long been criticized for posing—and, in some cases, paying—subjects to get the shot he wanted. Yet, even if his work was at times more dramatization than documentary, it was virtually the only record of cultures that had begun to decline.
Over three decades Curtis took between 40,000 and 50,000 photographs. Some of them he processed as platinum prints or orotones (see "Gold Standards"), which were sold individually. He also made cyanotype work prints. Most common on the market today are the 2,200 images published in The North American Indian as photogravures on one of three kinds of handmade paper: Dutch Van Gelder, Japanese vellum, or a near-translucent Japanese tissue paper (the most expensive). With few complete sets in private hands, they typically come up for sale separately. In April 2006 Sotheby’s sold a portfolio of 34 photogravures on Van Gelder paper for $132,000, far more than the $25,000 high estimate.
Competition is growing for Curtis’s most famous pieces—whether it be portraits of Chief Joseph and Geronimo or The Vanishing Race, the picture Curtis used as a kind of emblem for his entire project. At a Sotheby’s sale in October 2005, Christopher Cardozo paid $78,000 for a platinum print of Geronimo showing the brooding warrior chief dressed for Teddy Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade. The price was more than double the $30,000 high estimate. Less than a year later, Bonhams & Butterfields in San Francisco sold an identical image for $155,750, the record for a single Curtis photo. With an increasing number of collectors from all over the world—Christie’s Paterson notes that the European market is quite strong—experts anticipate more record prices.
Even if we don’t consciously realize it, our vision of Native Americans and the West has been profoundly shaped by Curtis’s work. When we think of Geronimo, Indian medicine men, or the Western landscape, the images that come to mind are very often ones that Curtis gave us.
When Curtis’s funding from J. P. Morgan ran out, one of his schemes for raising money was to create special gold-tinted glass prints called orotones (or Curt-tones, as he referred to them), which are made using a bronzine powder. Curtis produced orotones of around 65 of his most popular images and mounted them in handsome Arts and Crafts–style frames.
"Curtis didn’t invent the orotone process and he wasn’t the only photographer to use it," says Swann Auction Galleries specialist Daile Kaplan. "But he was certainly the one who perfected it." Enraptured buyers snapped up these works, and today collectors are doing the same. They’re relatively affordable—$15,000 to $35,000 for an image in excellent condition and in the most common size, 11 by 14 inches. And they have held their value well.
When you see one, it’s easy to understand why. If Curtis’s photographs were already romantic and seductively beautiful, his orotones possess those qualities in the extreme. All the hues are golden so the portraits and landscapes have a honeyed glow, as though they’re lit from within. Because they are printed on glass, the images possess an almost three-dimensional quality: Looking at them, you almost feel as if you could step inside the frame, right into Curtis’s West.
Auction Specialists A few of the best names to know are Laura Paterson at Christie’s (212-636-2330; christies.com), Christopher Mahoney at Sotheby’s (212-894-1149; sothebys.com), and Swann Auction Galleries’ Daile Kaplan (212-254-4710; swanngalleries.com).
Andrew Smith Gallery A pioneering Curtis dealer, Smith started in 1974 and is a great source for single prints of all kinds. 203 W. San Francisco St. and 122 Grant Ave., Santa Fe, New Mexico; 505-984-1234; andrewsmithgallery.com
Christopher Cardozo Fine Art A leading Curtis scholar, Cardozo is the curator of "Sacred Legacy," an exhibition of the photographer’s work that has toured some 50 countries. He closed his Minneapolis gallery but still does private sales. 612-377-2252; edwardcurtis.com
Flury & Company Lois Flury has been handling Curtis’s work since the seventies, and her gallery offers one of the world’s best selections of his orotones. 322 First Ave. S., Seattle; 206-587-0260; fluryco.com