Ghostly hints of lives lived

Stephan Loewentheil and William H. Miller, III, recently gifted the Kislak Center one of the most amazing collections on which I have had the privilege to work … the Edward S. Curtis collection of interpositive glass plates and papers, 1899-1929. While the bulk of the gift consists of 168 interpositive glass plates used in the creation of Curtis’s “The North American Indian” (for which he took more than 40,000 photographs), I worked only with a tiny portion of paper material that makes up the remainder of the collection.

Description of and Poem about Curtis’s image which he title “The Vanishing Race”

Curtis’s images are extraordinary, but the backstory is what I love. Curtis’s work is controversial–he intentionally created an idealized and romanticized picture of Native American culture and the lives of indigenous peoples at a time when the American government and its citizens were forcefully trying to destroy those very cultures and lives. This is not to say that Curtis was unaware of what was going on–one of his best known images is one that he titled, “The Vanishing Race,” and which is highlighted in one of his brochures. The brochure states that this image “is a study Mr. Curtis carried in his mind for several years and in which he endeavored to express the thought that ‘the Indian robbed of his home and stripped of his primitive clothing rides into the darkness of the unknown future,’” (box 1, folder 1). Perhaps what makes Curtis most controversial is that he chose NOT to focus on the ways in which white Americans and the government encouraged assimilation and deprived indigenous peoples the right to live on their lands.

When it comes right down to it, of course, all archival collections have bias–as primary sources, they describe what a person witnessed, thought, experienced, and did. They tell someone’s truth; and if I am honest, I have rarely processed a collection that did not jar my 21st-century perception of what is right and good. I think perhaps Curtis’s truth is that he, an early 20th century man with his own set of prejudices and biases (and unfortunate terminology), was aiming to preserve the heritage and cultures of North America’s indigenous peoples and he went to enormous efforts to do so. He may not have documented what was happening to these people, but he did, in fact, document what cultures looked like before forced assimilation.

Brochures for Curtis’s studio and work

In addition to material documenting Curtis’s efforts to raise money for his project and to advertise his work, we also have a number of big beautiful draft prints. They have holes at the top from where they probably hung around a studio, circles around imperfections in the prints, and notes that detail mistakes or processes that needed to be completed. I’m not going to lie, this is my favorite bit of an archival collection … I love the unfinished working documents.

Mother and baby on verso of a Curtis print

As I was working away, I was entranced by the beauty of the prints … the color, the detail, and the images are absolutely breathtaking. After I recorded details about each of these beautiful prints, I would carefully lay one print face down on my desk. While moving from one image to the next, my brain suddenly registered the faint image of a baby–it is perhaps worrisome that my first thought was that I had finally lost it–I was seeing babies where there should be no babies! I forced my eyes back to the print I had just laid face down and was enormously relieved to see that there was, in fact, just the faintest trace of a different Curtis image. After the relief wore off, I was delighted … and thrilled to see that a number of our prints had these hauntingly beautiful ghost prints on their versos. Did this happen just because these were not considered final prints? I have no idea, but I absolutely love them.

One of my favorite things about my job is the ability to, at least in my own brain, build a human life around a page or two of spidery handwritten text, an image, or scrapbook. The baby in that faint picture might be around a hundred years old now. As I always do, I wondered what their life was like? Where did they grow up? Were they proud of their heritage and given an environment in which it was celebrated and honored? A researcher could probably find this information.

I wondered if Curtis and his team of artisans ever noticed or cared about the ghostly images on the back of the “real” prints. For me, these unintentional hints of human existence are as gorgeous as the finished prints for which Curtis was known.

The paper component of the collection is available for use … and until the glass plates in our collection are housed, you can access beautiful digital surrogates courtesy of Northwestern University and their digital collections. Closer to home, you can make an appointment to see the Penn Museum Library‘s nearly complete set of the published edition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: