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Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952): The Vanishing Race in Americana STAIR on August 1 at 10am

Edward Curtis took this photograph of Navajos on horseback in 1904 during his four decade-long project recording the culture and lifestyle of Native American tribes. The image was included in Volume I of The North American Indians published in 1907. The Vanishing Race is a visual metaphor for the core concept that Curtis strove to document in his forty-volume publication of text and photogravures, the literal “vanishing” of Indigenous peoples. Though seen as sincere in their attempt at documentation, these photographs can also be seen as a romanticized version of Native American life and have been criticized for neglecting the harsh reality of the oppression that Native Americans have been subjected to for centuries. In the introduction to the first volume of The North American Indians, Curtis acknowledged that the treatment of Native Americans “has in many cases been worse than criminal.” He chose, however, to photograph them in a romanticized way by employing a Pictorialist style of photography that was emerging in the late 19th century. Pictorialism uses references to symbol and allegory, combined with pleasing composition, soft focus and blurring of forms to create a ‘picturesque’ image. It is a style of creating an image that renders it in contrast to the difficult lives and authentic truth of the subjects depicted.

In addition to including this image as a photogravure in Volume I, Curtis printed The Vanishing Race using a technique called orotone. An orotone photograph is created by printing the image on glass that has been coated with a silver gelatin emulsion. After being exposed and developed, the back of the glass plate is coated with banana oil that is mixed with gold-colored pigment. Orotones, also called gold tones, are very fragile as they are printed on glass. Curtis’ studio framed his orotones with special frames to help protect the glass plates.

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