Edward Curtis took photos that captured vanishing cultures

On the eve of Oregon's Lewis & Clark Bicentennial, an exhibit at Quintana Galleries offers a rare glimpse into the lives of the native peoples who interacted with the explorers.

'Edward S. Curtis: Following the Lewis & Clark Trail' includes arresting images of a warrior performing a sun dance, a young woman in a traditional bridal headdress and detail-rich portraits of tribal elders, adorned in feathers, beaded apparel and jewelry carved from bone and horn.

This also is the first public viewing of 20 goldtones taken by the photographer between 1898 and 1928.

The costly and painstaking medium known as goldtone was Curtis' favorite, says Cecily Quintana, whose family gallery is hosting the show.

'Goldtones have a luminosity and three-dimensionality that's unlike any other photographic technique,' Quintana says. 'It's done by printing the image in reverse on a sheet of glass, and then backing it with a thick mixture of powdered gold pigment and oil.'

Recognized for his contributions as an ethnographer as well as a photographer, Curtis carried recording devices to document invaluable information about each tribe that he visited. Traveling primarily in summer months, Curtis eventually would canvass an area as far north as Alaska and as far south as Arizona to document more than 80 tribal groups.

Born in Wisconsin in 1868, Curtis moved to Seattle with his family as a teenager. An outdoorsman who enjoyed taking photographs on his excursions, Curtis was climbing Mount Rainier when he happened upon a group of lost climbers.

It was his good fortune that the party happened to include several well-known naturalists and a magazine editor, connections for Curtis that eventually led to his selection as official photographer on a two-month Alaska expedition led by railroad tycoon Edward Harriman. The assignment helped Curtis secure the valuable contacts that would pave the way for what he would call The North American Indian project.

Curtis' desire to undertake the project began in 1900 when he witnessed a sun dance performed by members of the Blood, Blackfeet and Algonquin tribes at an encampment in Montana. The experience, followed shortly thereafter by a trip to a Hopi reservation in Arizona, cemented Curtis' desire to document the country's native tribes, both through text and photographs.

His understanding that their absorption into white culture was imminent fueled his feverish work with the tribes, many of which learned via word of mouth of Curtis' respectful and comprehensive work. This led to several tribes inviting him to document their people. He typically sent a representative in advance to pave the way for his immersion into the tribe's day-to-day activities.

Funding for many of Curtis' efforts came from J.P. Morgan, another railroad industrialist. Morgan agreed to support him for five years in exchange for 500 original photographs and 25 sets of 'The North American Indian' Ñ a 20-volume summary of Curtis' work that combined information about the tribal cultures with high-quality photoengravings.

Many of the photographs still hang in Morgan's corporate boardroom, offering testimony to the company founder's staunch support of Curtis.

By 1908, Curtis was the father of four children and supplemented his income through his photo studio in Seattle. The studio, where notable photographer Imogen Cunningham once worked as an assistant, had an excellent reputation; Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe once traveled by train from Northeastern Washington to have Curtis take his portrait.

Unfortunately, the exorbitant cost of printing the goldtone images kept the studio in the red. The financial stress, coupled with his frequent project-related absences, caused Curtis' marriage to collapse. During the divorce, his ex-wife received all of Curtis' negatives and many of his glass-plate negatives were destroyed.

Curtis soon moved to Los Angeles, where he combined his Native American work with still photography in Hollywood, contracting on such films as 'The Ten Commandments' and 'Adam's Rib.'

By the time he died in 1952, Curtis and his work had fallen into obscurity. A small obituary in The New York Times described him as an expert in Native American history who also was known as a photographer.

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