Western Art Collector
A COLLECTOR’S GUIDE
A helpful breakdown on the photography mediums of Edward S. Curtis’ timeless images of Native Americans.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Christopher Cardozo’s 2015 book Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks, published by Delmonico Books / Prestel. Cardozo is a leading expert on Curtis and the publisher of a magnificent new republication of Curtis’ magnum opus, The North American Indian. Learn more about the republication at www.edwardcurtis.com.
Edward S. Curtis is well known as a maker of powerful, evocative images of Native Americans. What is less well known is that he was also a gifted printmaker, possessing great technical ingenuity and virtuosity. Although his photogravures have frequently been reproduced for publication, few people have seen his original “master prints”—the fine art prints he made for exhibition or sale. His master prints comprise only one to two percent of his extant body of work.
The vast majority of vintage Curtis photographs are printed in photogravure, a photoengraving technique notable for its subtlety, beauty, and consistency. While photogravure offered Curtis a beautiful, but expensive, way to produce the quality and quantity of prints required for The North American Indian, he also made prints for a variety of other purposes—to get initial feedback on his negatives while still in the field, for reference and editing purposes, as experiments, and as finished prints that could be sold or exhibited. Prints done in several of these mediums are especially rare, and today often prized by serious collectors for their craftsmanship, beauty, and great object presence.
This guide introduces the different print processes that Curtis employed and describes their specific characteristics and relative merits. The term vintage as used here refers to prints made by Curtis or his studio prior to 1930, as well as to the first printing of the photogravures, which occurred between 1907 and 1930.
Because they comprise approximately 98 percent of his extant vintage work, Curtis is known almost exclusively through his photogravure prints, commonly referred to as “gravures.” These hand-pulled photoengravings were produced by master engravers and printers in Boston primarily for inclusion in The North American Indian. Photogravure is essentially a marriage of photography and engraving wherein the photographic image is chemically etched into the surface of a copper-clad engraving plate. To make a photogravure, an interpositive, generated from the negative, is exposed and contact-printed onto a photosensitized engraving plate. After the exposed plate is developed out, it is placed in an acid etching bath. The acid etches microscopic depressions in the metal surface, with the shadow areas of the finished image etched most deeply into the plate. After it is etched, the plate is cleaned, then inked and printed by hand, one print at a time.
Curtis used the photogravure process almost exclusively to produce the images for his magnum opus The North American Indian but in a few isolated instances employed the process for other images. The 2,234 images that Curtis selected for The North American Indian project were printed in an edition of approximately 300 impressions. In spite of its expense and difficulty, Curtis chose photogravure because it was one of the finest photographic printing processes available and well suited for inclusion in books and portfolios. The technique and artisanship of photogravure had reached a zenith by the early 1900s, and large numbers of prints could be made with very consistent results. The warm sepia tones and subtle, soft resolution of the photogravure process complemented Curtis’ imagery perfectly.
Originally, the photogravures made for The North American Indian were available only as part of complete sets. During the past 30 years, Curtis’ vintage photogravures have often come onto the market individually from broken sets or as prints that were never integrated into sets. Of the 2,000plus images from The North American Indian, perhaps 400 to 600 were also printed as master prints in platinum, silver, and other photographic mediums.
The term master print as used here refers to those non-photogravure prints made by Curtis, or his studio, for exhibition or sale. Although relatively few were made, these master prints were usually produced with fine, expensive, and often demanding materials. The best examples have great subtlety and delicacy. They are typically signed and/or blindstamped (debossed with the Curtis copyright information). Because of the expense and effort required to make them, Curtis generally created master prints of only those images he thought were his most evocative and compelling, and the best examples are often quite extraordinary. Many of his master prints (as well as some photogravures) incorporate Curtis’ negative numbers, which were written on the negative itself. Negatives were numbered sequentially each year and the negative number would be followed by a dash and then a two-digit number for the year the negative was created. There is a great deal of variation in print quality in Curtis’ master prints, undoubtedly due to the fact that his studio produced many of them while Curtis was in the field, several people were authorized to create the prints, and the same image was often reprinted over a number of years. The different print mediums are described below.
Gold-toned Printing-out Paper Print (“G.T.P.O.P.”). G.T.P.O.P. is one of the earliest forms of master prints Curtis made, and today they are exceedingly rare, with few examples surviving. The images Curtis printed in this process during a two- to three-year period beginning in 1898/99 are often dramatic and compelling, and provide a unique record of his artistry and technical genius.
The lightweight, delicate paper used for these prints was coated with light-sensitive colloidal silver. The paper was contact-printed with a negative, usually in bright sunlight, then processed and gold-toned. Because of the expense and difficulty, gold-toning had become largely obsolete by the 1890s, as much simpler and less costly processes became readily available. Curtis, however, created a very small body of exquisite G.T.P.O.P.’S for exhibition and sale, and a handful of these still exist. In general, they have a semi-gloss surface and a distinctive rich, reddish brown tonality due to the emulsion and toner combinations he utilized.
Platinum Prints. Regarded as the highest form of photographic printing by many serious collectors, the process is both expensive and difficult, thus platinum prints are inherently rare. While relatively few photographers worked in platinum, Curtis did so frequently, leaving us with a wonderful body of work in this medium. Curtis may also be unique among fine-art photographers in that he created more platinum than silver prints for exhibition and sale. However, of the several hundred images printed in platinum, it is unusual for more than two or three prints of any one image to exist.
Platinum prints are known for their rich blacks, subtle highlights, and broad, nuanced midtones. Because the platinum solution actually permeates the paper, rather than being suspended above it, as in most photographic mediums, the platinum image appears to be integrated within the paper itself. Curtis’ best platinum prints are delicate, generally warmtoned, and typically printed on expensive textured watercolor paper. The texture of the paper further softens the image, making it more consistent with Curtis’ Pictorialist aesthetic.
Once the paper is sensitized with the rare noble metal platinum, it is exposed in sunlight (or another strong source of ultraviolet light); the image appears during exposure. The print is then immersed in a potassium oxalate solution, to dissolve the iron salts. The platinum remains, forming the photographic image.
Platinum prints are exceptionally stable, and while platinum itself does not oxidize, Curtis’ platinum prints at times may evidence some oxidation from residues of iron or other materials used in toning the print. With the possible exception of the G.T.P.O.P.’S, platinum prints represent Curtis’ highest form of expression. Although they are not as rare as the G.T.P.O.P.’S, platinum prints nevertheless comprise under half of one percent of extant Curtis prints.
Goldtone Prints. Also known as an “orotone” and a “Curt-tone,” the goldtone was a hallmark of the Curtis studio. Even though Curtis pioneered and popularized this rarely used medium just after 1900, he printed fewer than one of every 500 of his negatives in this expensive and difficult process. It appears
to have been his favorite medium, however, and he wrote about it quite eloquently in his studio’s Goldtone Promotional Brochure:
“The ordinary photographic print, however good, lacks depth and transparency, or more strictly speaking, translucency. We all know how beautiful are the stones and pebbles in the limpid brook of the forest where the water absorbs the blue of the sky and the green of the foliage, yet when we take the same iridescent pebbles from the water and dry them they are dull and lifeless, so it is with the orthodox photographic print, but in the [goldtone] all the transparency is retained and they are as full of life and sparkle as an opal.”
The goldtone process is relatively simple to describe—the photograph is printed directly on sensitized glass instead of paper, processed, and then backed with a gold liquid wash or spray— but in practice it is very difficult to produce high-quality goldtone images. The fact that the emulsion is suspended on and supported by glass rather than paper creates a variety of limitations and difficulties. Nevertheless, Curtis was often able to achieve beautiful results, and his goldtones have become very valuable and highly sought after. The reflectivity of the gold backing, which is visible through the glass and the lighter areas of the emulsion, creates a luminosity and a feeling of three-dimensionality that makes photographs printed with this process both unique and very appealing.
With few exceptions, Curtis printed goldtones in four sizes, ranging from 8 by 10 to 18 by 22 inches, although those larger than 11 by 14 are extremely rare. Despite the small number of negatives he printed in this process, several of those images were quite popular, and a number of goldtones exist of several of his most popular images. Most vintage goldtones have survived the years remarkably well considering their fragility, although the gold backing is much more prone to chemical deterioration than most traditional photographic processes and is exceedingly difficult to conserve or restore.
Toned Gelatin Silver Prints. Curtis produced a small body of toned gelatin silver prints for exhibition and sale, on papers that varied in texture, weight, and finish. Gelatin silver prints, the most common form of black-and-white photograph made in the pre-digital era, use silver salt suspended in a gelatin emulsion to form the photographic image. As with platinum prints, Curtis toned most of his silver prints intended for exhibition or sale to give them the warm sepia tone consistent with his subject matter and his personal aesthetic.
Exceptional toned gelatin silver prints have a rich quality but are rarely, if ever, as delicate, subtle, or rich as the finest platinum prints. Curtis’ toned silver prints, while relatively rare, typically have a warmer tone than his platinum prints. While his toned silver prints are generally not as highly regarded as his platinum prints, they nevertheless form an important body of work.
Experimental and Hand-colored Prints. Curtis avidly explored a variety of aesthetic possibilities and experimented with a variety of photographic techniques. Building his own camera at age twelve was certainly an early indication of this bent. During his career, he produced a small and unusual body of experimental work, a few examples of which still exist. In some cases, he combined ink, oils, pastels, and/or gum bichromate to create prints with a much more personal, handmade feeling. Photographers in the Pictorialist movement valued both a handcrafted appearance and the processes that produced it, and these experimental prints undoubtedly were an expression of Curtis’ Pictorialist leanings. PRELIMINARY PRINTS
Curtis created prints in different, less expensive processes in the early stages of proofing his negatives and editing the images that he would ultimately produce as master prints for use in The North American Indian project. Historically, these early-stage prints were not thought to be of much value, and thus few have survived. They rarely possess the refinement or sophistication found in Curtis’ master prints, but some have an unusual and appealing directness and intensity. Recently, collectors have become more interested in these prints because of these qualities. Also, in some cases, preliminary prints may be the only evidence that remains of a particular negative, since over 95 percent of the negatives, many of which were on glass, no longer exist. Some of these prints possess great aesthetic power, while others have important historical and/or didactic value. Some of them, for example, are unique records of certain aspects of Native American culture. It should be remembered, however, that they were originally printed for utilitarian purposes, not for exhibition or sale.
Field Prints. Curtis commonly made prints while in the field to see what he had achieved, or failed to achieve, with his new negatives. Without access to a darkroom and the chemistry necessary for traditional photographic printing, Curtis chose a simple process for his field prints called cyanotype. The cyanotype process was invented in 1842 by photographic pioneer Sir John Herschel; it is a precursor to the technique architects use for blueprints. Like G.T.P.O.P, cyanotype is a printing-out process, meaning the image forms during exposure to light (and does not require subsequent chemical development). Curtis, or more likely an assistant, would place the negative in direct contact with a piece of paper that had been coated with a solution of sensitized salts. The exposure, normally made in a glass-fronted frame that held the negative in tight contact with the sensitized paper, was made in sunlight; the paper was then washed with water to fix the image. The chemical changes to the emulsion during exposure produced a rich blue tone (hence “cyanotype”) that became deeper and darker the more it was exposed to light. Curtis’ cyanotypes are now very rare
since most have been discarded over the years. However, they form a powerful link to Curtis and his project and are often the only remaining evidence of a negative. While aesthetically something of an acquired taste, cyanotypes have a subtle yet often powerful beauty that is becoming more and more appreciated.
Reference Prints and Proof Prints. After Curtis returned from the field, his studio staff would make gelatin silver “reference prints” from some of his new negatives. He used these prints as a simple record of the negatives and/or as an aid for further editing of the work. Curtis undoubtedly printed most of his negatives as cyanotypes to get feedback while he was still in the field. However, most do not appear to have been printed as silver prints, once he returned to the studio darkroom. Those that were, were undoubtedly images Curtis thought had possibilities for further consideration. Thus, he used the gelatin silver reference prints as a more refined and permanent form of evaluation and as an editing tool. The Curtis reference prints are typically printed on semi-gloss or glossy papers and are not, as a rule, toned.
The prints here referred to as “proof prints” are those that were produced as an intermediary step before creating a finished print. Within Curtis’ body of work, proof prints, like the reference prints, are most commonly gelatin silver prints and may be either toned or untoned. They were printed to aid Curtis in exploring, evaluating, and determining what the final state of an ideal finished piece would be, such as the dimensions, contrast, tonality, and other aesthetic considerations. Curtis also made proof photogravure prints as part of the process of creating The North American Indian. Some of these proof prints appear to be collotypes, apparently used as an alternative to photogravure.
Neither reference nor proof prints possess the subtlety or richness of a highly realized master print. However, like exceptional cyanotypes, some display an unusual directness and intensity. Some also provide us with evidence of an image that would otherwise be lost.
PRINT AND MOUNT SIZES
Curtis’ vintage prints range in size from 4 by 5 to 24 by 32 inches or larger. The vast majority of his photogravure prints are approximately 5 by 7 or 12 by 16 inches; 6 by 8 or 12 by 16 inches (platinum and silver prints); or 8 by 10 and 11 by 14 inches (goldtones). All mediums include horizontal and vertical images. The smaller photogravures are printed on 9½-by-12½-inch handmade paper and the larger photogravures on 18½-by-22½– inch sheets of hand-made etching stock or, in the case of the premium “tissue” prints, the “tissue” paper is slightly larger than the image and then overmatted with the 18½-by-22½-inch sheets and slightly smaller for the undermats. The “tissue” photogravures are mounted on a “Vellum” type paper and overmatted with Van Gelder paper. The smaller photogravures were originally bound in books and the larger ones were loose in portfolios. Goldtones, being printed on glass, are never mounted and virtually always framed. The majority of extant silver and platinum prints are unmounted, but some are mounted on single, double, triple, even quadruple layers of handmade deckled-edged single-weight paper. Occasionally, Curtis’ silver and platinum prints are mounted on a stiff, heavy-weight board.
Originally, Curtis worked with large glass-plate negatives up to 14 by 17 inches and possibly larger; later negatives (post-1900) were typically 6½ by 8½ inches. Curtis is believed to have created 40,000 to 50,000 negatives of North American Indians and at least 10,000 to 20,000 studio portraits, landscapes, Gold Rush, and Harriman Alaska Expedition photographs.
Curtis did not edition his individual prints as such. However, his sets of rare books, The North American Indian, were editioned. And, by extension, the photogravures contained therein are of a limited edition. The first few volumes and portfolios were apparently printed in editions of somewhat over 300 (of a proposed edition of 500). Later, the edition size appears to have decreased to fewer than 300. Today, at least 220 of the original sets of The North American Indian are still intact as complete sets (and approximately 90 percent
of these are in institutional collections). The following is a rough guide to the number of Curtis prints, by media, believed to exist.
Goldtones (also “Curt-tones” or “orotones”). Curtis printed approximately 60 to 70 of his negatives as goldtones. Prints of his individual goldtone images range from unique to possibly over 500 impressions for The Vanishing Race. A small number of images (fewer than 10) have more than 25 impressions in goldtone extant. A handful may have 50 or more prints still existing. For the majority of the remaining images, however, there are a relatively small number of prints extant. A majority exist in small numbers (10 or fewer). The most popular size for his goldtones was 11 by 14 inches, followed by 8 by 10, 14 by 17 (rare), and 18 by 22 (extremely rare).
While goldtones are a gelatin silver emulsion on glass, for purposes of this discussion they are treated as a separate category from other silver prints.
Platinum Prints. It is estimated that approximately 400 to 600 negatives were printed as platinum prints, but possibly as few as 200 as finished prints for exhibition or sale, typically in either the 6 by 8 or 12 by 16 size. There are generally fewer than four or five platinum prints from any given negative. Several of the most popular images are estimated to have 40 to 80 examples in existence in platinum in various sizes. There may be 200 to 300 or more platinum prints of
The Vanishing Race ranging in size from 6 by 8 to 17 by 22 inches.
Silver Prints. Untoned silver “reference” prints survive of well over 1,000 negatives, although most of these are in an archive originally filed with the Copyright Office, now part of the Smithsonian Collection. Generally, there are at most two or three extant “reference prints” of any given negative, including one or two copies originally submitted to the Copyright Office. For toned silver prints, it is estimated that prints from only 100 to 200 negatives exist, and generally only one or two toned silver prints exist from any of those 100 to 200 negatives. A few of the most popular images may be extant in higher numbers. A small number (possibly fewer than 50) of toned silver prints were created as “border prints”; these are quite scarce, with generally only one or two prints per negative.
Cyanotypes. Of the 40,000 to 50,000 cyanotype prints presumed to have been created (at least one for virtually every negative), fewer than 800 appear to have survived. Each cyanotype is unique, and typically no more than one exists for any given negative.
Experimental Prints. Hand-colored and other experimental prints are extremely rare, and each is a unique expression of the negative from which it was created.
Posthumous Original Prints and Reproductions. These have been, and continue to be, produced in a wide variety of open- and closed-end editions, in at least nine different print media. “Posthumous original prints” are made from Curtis’ original negatives. Reproductions are made from vintage or contemporary prints, without use of the vintage negative.
Curtis did not create individual, thematic portfolios in the manner of many contemporary photographers. He did create 20 portfolios as part of The North American Indian. Each set of these rare books comprises 723 largeformat original photogravures contained in the portfolios. These portfolios were created from 1907 to 1930 and were available only in a complete set, on a subscription basis.
Curtis also created more than 100 photographs for the two-volume Harriman Alaska Expedition albums. These albums of over 240 gelatin silver prints were done in an edition of approximately 25.
Curtis undoubtedly created a few other albums of original photographs at some point, and at least one example of his work with the mountaineering group the Mazamas Club is known to exist.
SIGNATURE VARIATIONS AND OTHER IDENTIFICATION
Signatures. Photogravures are rarely signed. Goldtones are generally signed (in the negative), typically on the lower right but occasionally the lower left, generally accompanied by a © symbol or the word “copyright.” Toned silver prints are generally signed in ink, on the recto, lower right, with the © symbol. Untoned silver prints are rarely signed. Cyanotypes are rarely, if ever, signed. Platinum prints are generally signed in ink, on the recto, lower right. Gold-toned printing-out paper prints are generally signed in the negative and often also in ink on the recto. Because Curtis was in the field for months at a time, different people in his studio were authorized to sign his prints. His and his authorized signatures varied over his nearly 40-year career, becoming more stylized by the early 1900s.
Blindstamps. Many of Curtis’ platinum and toned silver prints have his copyright blindstamp-embossed on the lower left, in or very near the image margin and/or on the mount. On rare occasions, the blindstamp is embossed on the lower right. Curtis also occasionally used a studio blindstamp.
Studio Stickers. Many mounted platinum and silver prints have studio and/or descriptive stickers on the verso, as do many goldtones.
Holographic Identification. Many mounted and some unmounted platinum prints have title or other information in ink on the verso (generally on the top left) and in rare cases on the recto. Curtis’ paper-based silver prints also occasionally have a title, negative number, or other information handwritten on the back of the print or mount. It is not unusual in Curtis’ earlier prints to find handwritten information pertaining to title, copyright, date, and/or negative in off-white from the holographic information written on the negative.
Negative Number. Often win pen on the negative and frequently found on the lower left of non-photogravure prints and occasionally the photogravures. The initial numbers are that year’s negative number, which is followed by a dash, and then a two-digit number representing the year the negative was made.
Watermark. Van Gelder (Holland) photogravure etching stock virtually always incorporated an eponymous watermark. Other paper-based prints—photogravure and nonphotogravure—generally have no watermarks.
Custom/studio Framing. Curtis created or commissioned many beautiful frames for exhibition and sale. His goldtones were always sold with frames, typically in the “batwing” style. Occasionally, he framed his goldtones in other styles. His platinum and occasionally silver prints were typically mounted in custommade, quarter-sawn oak frames for exhibition and/or for sale. These quarter-sawn oak frames exist in a rich variety of custom designs.