Edward S. Curtis Pt. 2 – Photo Techniques & Influence of Artistic Movements

Chief – Klamath by Edward S. Curtis. 1923.

Chief – Klamath by Edward S. Curtis. 1923.

The North American Indian books include many photographs and the larger size portfolios contain additional images. The images are never referred to in the text. Curtis would sometimes wait weeks to capture the right image. He was aware of the effect photographing from different angles would have on the subject matter. In some of the pictures he photographed subjects from low camera angles with the camera pointing upwards while in others he focused just below the axis of the eyes. The Old Klamath Woman portrait shows the eyes in sharp focus but the image softens out by the time you get to the cheekbones. As Dawn Boone of A6 observed, the woman pictured is “softening back into the earth right before our eyes.” There is a certain determination expressed in the faces of some of the people even though they had been living against a background of loss.

Curtis’ work was influenced by the Emersonian transcendentalist’s movement. In transcendentalism, the role of nature was considered to be very important. This is evident in the Chief-Klamath image that shows a figure looking out at Crater Lake. He is standing with his back to the camera next to a small stand of trees. His form echoes the shapes of the forest. Another photo, Quiet Waters- Yurock, shows a fisherman on a cliff side blending into the environment and nearly disappearing in the reflection in the water below.

Cañon de Chelly - Navaho by Edward S. Curtis. 1904.

Cañon de Chelly – Navaho by Edward S. Curtis. 1904.

The prints contained in the books are an intersection of photography and engraving. Curtis would frame the shot using a wooden box camera and he would view it through the lens upside down and backwards. The equipment Curtis used was large and heavy. At one point a mule carrying his equipment tumbled off the trail in the Grand Canyon. He spent 12 hours reconstructing his camera. He would usually make a quick cyanotype print to see if he was satisfied with the shot. If satisfied with the initial image, Curtis would then use the photogravure process to make the final print. A glass plate negative was used in the camera. An image would be photographically transferred to a copper plate through the use of a gelatin-coated light-sensitive tissue. The image would be etched into the plate with acid and then prints would be made from that plate. Curtis made some of the prints with a gold tone process in which gold was worked into the glass plates. That was his favorite method but the plates were very fragile. He, like Albert Stieglitz and other Pictorialists, preferred the more artistic photogravure process over other methods available. The influence of the Pictorialists can clearly be seen in Edward S. Curtis’ work.

Albert Stieglitz, a contemporary of Curtis’, was originally from New Jersey but did much of his work in New York City. He married artist Georgia O’Keefe in 1924. His office was close to an office Curtis sometimes used so they likely at least knew of each other.

Andres Cañon by Edward S. Curtis. 1924.

Andres Cañon by Edward S. Curtis. 1924.

As handheld cameras for amateurs became widely available, Stieglitz became determined to prove that photography was as much an art form as painting and sculpture. In 1902 Stieglitz and several other photographers broke away from the Camera Club of New York, where he worked as editor of their Camera Notes publication, to form the Photo-Secession group. Stieglitz often made platinum prints because of the overall feel this process gave to the image. The pictures often included elements from nature seen through a soft haze. Subject matter was often posed in an idealized way as if in a painting. Deep sepia ink tones unified the images. Stieglitz selected specific papers for printing that showed “toothiness.”  The lack of reality in the photographs may have been partly in response to current events such as the world war looming on the horizon. Stieglitz could be very opinionated and overbearing so other Pictorialists started their own groups in pursuit of more artistic freedom. Like Curtis and his work, Stieglitz ran out of money to produce Camera Notes as interest waned and he ended up with an overstock of the publication. By 1917, artists began moving away from the Pictorial movement towards more abstract forms.

Photos by Edward S. Curtis in this article are from the following source:  http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/index.html

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