Curtis in Alaska

While Edward Curtis (1868-1952) is best remembered for his 2,200 photogravures (ink prints from photographic negatives) published in the 20 volume set, The North America Indian, he began publishing his photographs with images from the Alaskan/Yukon Gold Rush of 1897, and more importantly, as one of the official photographers on E.H. Harriman’s Alaskan expedition of 1899. It was through the Harriman project that Curtis was introduced to the master printers at John Andrew and Son in Boston, who transformed his glass positives into rich aquatinted photogravures. Curtis went on to enlist their services again with his own mammoth series.

When Curtis knew them, the engraving firm was in its thirtieth year, run by John’s son George Theodore Andrew (1843-1934) and their technical skill made it worth the cross-country shipping. Although the scale of the Alaska prints does not compare with the prints in The North American Indian, many of the photogravures in Alaska are equally rich in detail and texture.

The Harriman Expedition to Alaska was the last great 19th-century survey of the North American frontier…

Curtis’ relationship with Harriman, Robert Grinnel, a leading ethnographic expert on Native Americans and other members of the party had a great influence on the rest of his life. After a trip of nine thousand miles the party returned with five thousand pictures and over six hundred animal and plant species new to science. New glaciers were mapped and photographed and a new fjord was discovered. Curtis photographed many of the glaciers, but it was his Indian pictures on this trip that established his artistic genius. Curtis produced a souvenir album of photographs for the participants.

Harriman Alaska Expedition (1899), Alaska… (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1901). “Advertisement. The publication of the series of volumes on the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899, heretofore privately printed, has been transferred to the Smithsonian institution by Mrs. Edward H. Harriman, and the work will hereafter be known as the Harriman Alaska series of the Smithsonian institution. The remainder of the edition of volumes I to V, and VIII to XIII, as also volumes VI and VII in preparation, together with any additional volumes that may hereafter appear, will bear special Smithsonian title pages. Smithsonian institution … July, 1910.” ReCAP WA Q115 .H2 1901