Introduction from Dr. Larry Len Peterson

In 1907 The New York Herald dubbed a planned photographic book series by Edward Sheriff Curtis as the “Most gigantic undertaking in the making of books since the King James edition of the Bible.”  Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award recipient Timothy Egan called The North American Indian, “The greatest photographic achievement of all time.”  Curtis, the West’s greatest Indian photographer, had a profound effect on how whites viewed the many Native American cultures.  He also instilled a sense of pride for Indians in their heritage.

The quintessential searcher, Curtis was born on February 19, 1868 in Whitewater, Wisconsin, a son of an itinerant minister, and early on took an interest in photography.  In 1873 the family relocated to La Seuer County, Minnesota.   At age nineteen, Curtis moved once again with his family and settled on a claim of land in Sydney, Washington, a small village on Puget Sound across the bay from Seattle, Washington.  In 1892 he married Clara Phillips.  Within three years, he was the most sought after society portrait photographer in Seattle. His fame would escalate, and eventually President Theodore Roosevelt invited him to photograph him and his family.  Roosevelt had thousands of photographs taken of him, but the one Curtis snapped was his favorite.  Whenever possible, Curtis spent time photographing the nearby Suquamish Indians and became known as the “Shadow Catcher.”

In the summer of 1900, George Bird Grinnell invited Curtis to witness firsthand the Blackfeet Sun Dance outside Browning, Montana.  “Their humanity has been forgotten,” Grinnell said, explaining the stereotypes of either virtuous savage or victim who turned to vices.  The Piegans, aka Blackfeet, were gathered to worship the Great Mystery.  Curtis later recalled, “It is wild, terrifying and elaborately mystifying.  The first time I witnessed it I sat in the hallowed lodge with my friend George Bird Grinnell, who was called the ‘Father of the Blackfoot people.’”  Inspired, Curtis wrote, “I don’t know how many tribes there are west of the Missouri…maybe a hundred.  But I want to make them live forever—in sort of history photographs.”

At the suggestion of Theodore Roosevelt, Curtis solicited John Pierpont Morgan—one of the richest men in the world—who promised to loan him $15,000 a year for five years.  In return, Curtis would author twenty volumes of text, each volume illustrated with approximately seventy-five small prints and each was accompanied by a portfolio of about thirty-five large photogravures.  The first volume was published in 1907, and Morgan requested as part of the deal the first twenty-five.  By 1920 Curtis had finished eleven volumes and moved from Seattle to Los Angeles where he set up a studio in the Biltmore Hotel.  It was there that Nancy Russell in 1924 arranged for Curtis to photograph Charles M. Russell in what would turn out to be perhaps the most recognized image ever taken of him by the most famous photographer to ever snap a portrait of the famed artist.

Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952)
Charles M. Russell, 1924
silver print, 12 ½ x 10 inches
hand-signed by Russell and Curtis
Courtesy of the Big Sky Collection, Larry and LeAnne Peterson

The final volume of The North American Indian was published in 1930, by which time the Morgan family had contributed almost $400,000 ($10 million in today’s dollars)—about one-quarter of the total cost of the entire project.  In the end, it required thirty years and over 40,000 photographs of eighty tribes along with 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of indigenous languages and music by Curtis to complete his mission.  Each of the twenty volume sets contained 2,234 original photographic reproductions (the twenty books contained a total of 1,511 photogravures and the twenty portfolios a total of 723 photogravures), 2.5 million words of enlightening anthropologic text by Curtis, and numerous transcriptions of language and music.  Initially, 500 sets were proposed, but only 214 sets were subscribed.  Still, at the time Curtis completed his project in 1930 during the Great Depression, the public had moved on.  In 1935 the Morgan family sold all the assets of the North American Indian, Inc. to Charles Lauriat Books of Boston for $1,000.  Lauriat would assemble approximately 60 more sets.  Combining the original and Lauriat sets, an estimated 272 sets in total were produced, but many were subsequently broken up, and the images sold separately.  Today, at least 220 sets of The North American Indian are intact, and approximately ninety percent of those are in institutional collections.  Less than twenty are held privately.  Importantly, the sets were not numbered chronologically, and only the early sets were signed by Roosevelt in volume one.

In 2020 perhaps the most special and important lot in the history of Western American art came to auction.  Set #83 of the The North American Indian, portfolios 1-20; and book volumes 1-20—signed by Curtis and President Theodore Roosevelt—were auctioned along with Curtis’s personal Stickley Brothers (Grand Rapids, Michigan) oak book cabinet (1909) made especially to display a complete set.

Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952)
The North American Indian
Portfolios 1-20 and Volumes 1-20
Set # 83
Reproduced from The American West Reimagined (2021) by Larry Len Peterson


Stickley Brothers (Grand Rapids, MI) oak book cabinet from the personal library of Edward S. Curtis (1909)
55 ¾ inches high, 47 ½ inches wide, and 19 ¾ inches deep
Reproduced from The American West Reimagined (2021) by Larry Len Peterson

The stunning Stickley oak cabinet is a poignant reminder of the untold story of a close friendship between two famous people, which spanned decades.  There was no man in America who loved the Indians more than Curtis.  Likewise, there was no woman in America who loved the Indians more than Marah Ellis Ryan (1866-1934).  Ryan was born in Butler County, Pennsylvania and became a noted author and Indian activist.  The two most likely met around 1906 when they were trekking through the Southwest, especially in the land of the Navajo and Hopi.  In March 1907 Ryan published Indian Love Letters—with a Curtis illustration on the frontispiece—about the Hopi. Two years later she published The Flute of the Gods with twenty-four Curtis illustrations.  The front cover was decorated with his Prayer to the Stars. There was also a rare, deluxe edition signed by Ryan and Curtis.  The New York Times wrote in Ryan’s obituary on July 11, 1934, “Mrs. Ryan went to live among the Hopi Indians twenty-five years ago and claimed to be the only white woman ever admitted to the secret religious rites.”

Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952)
Prayer to the Stars
orotone in original batwing frame, 13 ½ x 10 ½ inches
Courtesy of the Big Sky Collection, Larry and LeAnne Peterson

When Curtis was penniless in the early 1930’s, she gifted to her dear friend her set of the The North American Indian along with her Stickley Brothers cabinet.  Amazingly, he was so self-sacrificing that he didn’t even have his own set at the time.  After he died, his set #106 was eventually purchased in 1993 from the family by the University of Oregon library.  The cabinet was owned by his daughter Beth Curtis Magnuson (1896-1973) from 1935 until her death.  It remained in the Curtis family until 1980.

Curtis died at Beth’s home on October 19, 1952 in Los Angeles—poor and unremembered.  It is hard to image that there was any artist of the American West who was more dedicated than him.  His unparalleled work is even more appreciated today with more books written about him by far than any other Western American photographer.  In addition, Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West is presenting the largest exhibition of his art ever in October 2021.   Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday wrote, “Never before have we seen the Indians of North America so close to the origins of their humanity, their sense of themselves in the world, their innate dignity and self-possessions.”

Because photogravures represent ninety-eight percent of his works, Curtis is known almost exclusively through them.  Still, he mastered other techniques, and those non-photogravure prints made by Curtis, include: gold-toned printing-out paper prints, platinum prints (the highest form of photographic printing), toned gelatin silver prints, and hand-colored prints.

E.S. Curtis - Portrait of a Woman, c1922

Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952)
Marah Ellis Ryan (1866-1934), circa 1922
Orotone, oval 10 x 8 1/4 inches
Courtesy of the Big Sky Collection, Larry and LeAnne Peterson



Yet some of his most beautiful and collectible photographs are the Curt-tone or orotone.  Bob Kapoun who still owns The Rainbow Man Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico has bought and sold more of these treasures than anyone else.  Bob grew up in Brookfield, a suburb of Chicago.  After obtaining a degree in cinema and still photography, in 1974 he moved to Santa Fe and in 1983 opened The Rainbow Man Gallery.  His fascination with Curtis has never waned, and we all learned so much from this article when he penned it back in 2002, so many years ago.



The Unique Goldtones of Edward S. Curtis

Robert W. Kapoun
Russell’s West: The C.M. Russell Museum Magazine, Volume 9, No. 1
Summer 2002

Starting about 1919, Charles M. Russell and his wife Nancy began spending their winters in California. As usual, they were visited by many friends and when their good friends, Charles and Mary Bair and their daughters came to visit from Montana, they would stay at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. It was in this famous hotel also that Edward S. Curtis, after having moved from Seattle around the same time period, set up his photographic studio. Curtis was still trying to finish his opus documentation of American Indian people, but needed to get out of Seattle due to a nasty divorce settlement. Fortunately his daughter, Beth, convinced Curtis to move with her to Los Angeles.

Edward Curtis knew both “Charlies” from days gone by up in Montana. So when Russell had an exhibition of his paintings at the Biltmore in March of 1924, Curtis managed to get both friends into the studio and took their portraits. What was extraordinary about this portrait session was not only the photographic images taken, but the photographic process Curtis created for the final print of Charles Russell. The image of Russell was printed by Curtis in what he called the Curt-Tone process, now more commonly referred to as a goldtone or orotone.

The goldtone process was not created by Curtis, but he refined the technique to the extent that he eventually was considered the greatest master of the process. In simple terms a goldtone is a positive image on glass, while most photographic prints are a positive image on paper. The process Curtis used was to take a clear plate of optical glass and spread a liquid emulsion onto the surface of the plate. He then projected his negative onto the glass to create a positive image. The highlights and shadows, however, could not be seen unless there was some type of backing on the image. Mixing a combination of banana oils and bronzing powders to create a sepia or a goldtone effect, Curtis then spread this mixture onto the dried emulsion. The final process involved baking the glass image so that all the chemicals bonded together. For those familiar with early photographic processes, there was a similar technique known as an ambrotype which was also an emulsion on glass; however, this process used black paint or cloth as a backing. The framing of the goldtone was the final element of the completed piece, which was also necessary in order to crate and ship the finished photographic work.

When viewed next to a paper print, the Curt-Tone/goldtone/orotone truly has a three-dimensional quality that transcends our normal perception of a photograph. When Edward Curtis was asked to describe the Curt-Tone process he said:

“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 rake the same iridescent pebbles from the water and dry them they are dull and lifeless, so it is with the ordinary photographic print, but in the Curt-Tones all the transparency is retained and they are as full of life and sparkle as an opal.”

An early 1916 catalog, created by Curtis in an attempt to promote the Curt-Tones, illustrates 32 different images available in the following sizes:

Size 8 x 10, framed    …$10
Size 11 x 14, framed  …$15
Size 14 x 17, framed  …$20
Size 18 x 22, framed  …$50
(No Curt-Tones sold unframed)

Needless to say, one could not buy just a glass photographic image without some protection, therefore, the framing of the goldtones was an important and integral part of the image. As a customer, you could choose from four different frame styles. The most often purchased frame style was what is now referred to as a “bat-wing” frame. The gilded plastered corners showed a distinctive similarity to a spread-winged bat. Another frame style is now known as a “pie crust” frame. This style has the gesso coming up and over the corner to give the appearance of a lip. Two other frames were also available but were not as popular as the two mentioned above.

It is interesting to note that when Curtis took portraits of non-Indian people, he rarely created prints using the goldtone process. Because of this fact, it is intriguing to speculate as to why Charles Russell’s image was printed as a goldtone. Note also that Nancy Russell’s image was printed in the traditional paper format. Did Curtis insist on using his Curt-Tone process or was it Charles Russell himself or even Nancy Russell that wanted his image to be created using this unique and distinctive process? Or did Curtis himself have such high regard for Russell that he felt this already famous artist should be documented in this manner?

Robert W Kapoun, along with his wife Marianne, is the owner of The Rainbow Man in Santa Fe. New Mexico. He has spent the last 25 years researching and collecting the original photographic works of Edward S. Curtis, especially the unique goldtones. Bob also is the author of The Language of the Robe which focuses on the history of the trade blankets used extensively by American Indians and produced by Pendleton and other commercial factories.

Read a scan of the original essay with accompanying images by clicking here.