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Thirty years ago while studying for a degree in Cinema and Still Photography at Southern Illinois University I became enthralled with the imagery of Native Americans. Little did I know at the time that I would move to Santa Fe, N.M. and become one of the exclusive dealers in vintage photography of American Indians. I pursued any and all photographers works: William Henry Jackson, Timothy O'Sullivan, Charles Bell, David Barry, and probably thirty other photographers, but only one photographer's work kept rising to the top of the list, Edward Sheriff Curtis. The reason for this is that no other photographer was able to photograph over 80 different tribes and have thirty years of work compiled into a unique set of 20 volumes and 20 portfolios that we know as The North American Indian. Many photographers pre-dated Curtis' work and many spent long periods of time in specific locations, but none photographed the tribes west of the Mississippi River and the length of our Country including Canada and Alaska as did Curtis. The life of Curtis has been well documented in book and film. I will list great referenced for those interested in knowing more about Edward S. Curtis, however for the sake of brevity I will only highlight Curtis' 30 years of fascination with documenting the Indian people. From 1898 to 1928 Edward S. Curtis spent every moment possible living and photographing the American Indian. Speaking to his early mentor George Bird Grinell, Curtis formulated his goals:

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 a sort of history by photographs. No, I mean in both photo-graphy and words, if I can write them. And if I live long enough.You and I know, and of course everyone does who thinks of it, the Indians of North America are vanishing. They're crumbled from their pride and power into pitifully small numbers, painful poverty and sorry weakness.There won't be anything left of them in a few generations and it's a tragedy - a national tragedy... Bird - I believe I can do something about it. I have some ability. I can live with these people, get their confidence, understand them and photograph them... It's such a big dream I can't see it all... But I can start - and sell prints of my pictures as I go along. I'm a poor man but I've got my health, plenty of steam and something to work for.

These prophetic words came to pass and Curtis did in fact accomplish his goal. The best that can be said of Curtis is that he was the right man at the right time and met the right people to achieve his success. The right people were President Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan. Roosevelt saw in Curtis the right man to get the job done and helped Curtis by introducing him to Morgan. J.P. Morgan cared little of the American Indian and his plight, but saw Curtis' photographs a way of satisfying Morgan's personal goal of creating a set of books that would survive for all posterity. Morgan was amassing one of the greatest collections of rare books that now are at the famous Morgan Library in New York City. Unfortunately, even Morgan's money was not enough to help Curtis in his pursuit. Curtis created out of his studios, first in Seattle and then in Los Angeles, original photographs to sell to help financially support him while in the field. These images are divided into two categories, master prints and the Curt-tones or goldtones as they are now called. The master prints are original photographs printed on paper. They can be platinum prints or toned silver prints. The other process was the unique goldtone process which is the subject of this web site. Please click on the Gold Tone Process.


Edward S. Curtis
Self Portrait, 1899

Bibliography:

Curtis' Western Indians by Ralph W. Andrews.
Bonanza Books. New York 1962

Edward S. Curtis The Life And Times of a Shadow
Catcher by Barbara A. Davis. Chronicle Books.
San Francisco 1985

Edward S. Curtis Prayer to the Great Mystery Text
Edited by Gerald Hausman. Photography Edited by
Bob Kapoun. St. Martin's Press 1995

Edward Sheriff Curtis Visions of a Vanishing Race by
Florence Curtis Graybill and Victor Boesen Houghton
Mifflin Company 1986

Coming to Light by Anne Makepeace PBS

 


 

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