September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
In 1971 the then photography critic of The New York Times , Gene Thornton, wrote a review titled “Why Is Curtis Unknown to Photographic History?” It began: “How can a major American photographer remain unknown for close to 50 years?” Well, often it happens.
The Curtis referred to was Edward Curtis, and it is difficult to fathom that he was considered an “unknown” only 30 years ago. His pictures of Native Americans seem to have always been with us, defining the people who once populated the North American continent. Today, at Amazon.com 72 titles of books, calendars, and boxed sets of cards of his photographs confirm Curtis’s hold on the imagination. That his pictures are both document and illusion is undeniable. Curtis was a committed artist dedicated for over 30 years to capturing something beautiful in each Indian tribe. He is overrated not because he failed in his grand ambition—in many aspects, he achieved a remarkable success—but because his view of Native Americans is just that: his view. Romanticized and lyrical, it has become ours as well. His photographs are our collective consciousness of what American Indians looked like and acted like. His soft-focused renderings leave no room for dirt under the fingernails, hardship, or pain. Most important, they give no suggestion of tribes in transition. Many other photographers depicted Native Americans, but the photographer referred to as “the shadow catcher” has overshadowed them all.
Let’s start again. “Why Is Curtis Unknown to Photographic History?” Well, sometimes it happens. In this case, however, the Curtis is still unknown. Asahel Curtis, Edward’s younger brother, has no books in print listed on Amazon.com. He doesn’t even have a mention in the standard histories of photography. Yet his contribution to the documentation of the great Northwest is considerable. Active from 1894 to 1938, he learned photography in his brother’s studio and worked there till 1897, when Edward sent him to cover the Klondike gold rush. He took more than 3,000 glass negatives. Unfortunately for the brothers’ relationship, Edward published some of these views under his own name, and his younger brother never really forgave him for it.
Asahel’s greatest achievement as a photographer is his striking documentation of the Seattle regrading project. Entire hills were demolished and houses moved to make the city more level. He had an eye for the dramatic overview yet valued the telling detail. He recorded the evolution of Seattle from the 1870s to the 1930s.
He, too, photographed Native Americans, but in opposition to Edward’s romanticized view, Asahel’s Indians are barefoot workers dressed in old European-style clothes. An aged woman buckles under a load of firewood, and fishermen in a small boat combat rough-and-tumble seas. There is no idealization in Asahel’s pictures.
Among his various bodies of work are wonderful pictures of farming, mountaineering, old and new forms of transportation, and workers in virtually every profession and trade in the Pacific Northwest. He did not have as focused a vision as his older brother (or as wealthy a backer as J. P. Morgan), but he deserves to be counted in the ranks of those cameramen and women who want to show life faithfully and unadorned.