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Edward Curtis’ The North American Indian Portfolio

In 1899, the young Edward Curtis accompanied E. H. Harriman’s Alaskan Expedition as the official photographer, discovering what would become his life-long passion for documenting the way of life of Native peoples. Curtis contributed over one hundred photographs to the two-volume Harriman Alaskan Expedition souvenir album which was published in an edition of approximately twenty-five.

In 1906, J. P. Morgan provided Curtis with $75,000 to produce a series of photographs of Native Americans. From 1906 to 1915, Curtis worked almost exclusively on the Native American life and culture project, travelling across the West to photograph Native American tribes, and filming his first feature-length documentary titled In the Land of the War Canoe in 1914. Curtis’ photographs from this period became the twenty-volume opus titled The North American Indian, published between 1907 and 1930 in an edition of approximately 272, sold on a subscription basis for the complete set. Curtis had proposed an edition of 500 but fewer than 300 were actually printed. Today, 220 complete original sets are known to exist, most of which are in institutional collections.

Curtis printed from his negatives in several different mediums, including goldtone, platinum and silver prints. These prints are quite rare and command the most interest at auction. Cyanotypes and hand-colored “experimental” prints were also made, though very few have survived and are extremely rare. The Curtis prints we see most often are the photogravures. Photogravure is a printing technique that produces an image from the transfer of a photographic negative to a copper printing plate. It is an intaglio printmaking process that can reproduce the detail and consistent tones of a photograph. The earliest forms of photogravure were developed in Europe by two early pioneers of photography, Nicéphore Niépce and Henry Fox Talbot. American photographer Alfred Stieglitz was a proponent of photogravure in the early 20th century, using it in his publication Camera Work. The technique was displaced by silver-gelatin printing in the 1920s which offered speed and ease to printers. Curtis was one of the last photographers to print extensively in photogravure.

In 1935, the Morgan estate sold the rights to The North American Indian, along with some remaining unpublished material, the copper printing plates, unbound pages, original glass-plate negatives and thousands of individual paper prints to the Charles E. Lauriat Company in Boston. Lauriat bound the loose pages and sold them together with nineteen complete sets that were part of the sale. The remaining material was untouched until it was discovered in 1972.

Our August 4, 2018 Americana auction will offer a group of Curtis’ photogravures from The North American Indian.

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