Performing Archive

Jackson and Curtis at the end

Ken Gonzales-Day, Scripps College

In 1927, Curtis buys a small forty-foot long boat, and sets off with Beth, and a small crew to document Native communities in Alaska.

In the same year, Clara files an affidavit to recover unpaid alimony from Curtis when she read’s of her ex-husband’s adventures, and immanent return to Seattle. She has Curtis picked up by police and he spends two nights in jail. When the judge finally asked Curtis just how much money had been paid by the Morgan estate over the length of the project, Curtis sheepishly offered, “…about 2.5 million when it’s done.” But he went on to explain all the expenses related to the project, and detailed the sad state of his finances. He explained his personal, professional and financial obligations to complete the project against all odds. In the end, the Judge dismissed the case.

As a result of his still growing debt, Morgan forced Curtis to transfer the copyright for all of the images and the text to the Morgan Company in 1928, but they had agreed to see the project through to the end! The final volume was unceremoniously released in 1930, bringing to a close a project that had spanned over three decades and left Curtis with almost nothing to show for it.

Curtis photographs “Jackson,” his Native guide, interpreter and informant for volume eighteen. It is a striking portrait. Despite the crisis at home, Curtis’ eye continued to evolve as a photographer through the many years he worked on The North American Indian, and while he has made use of off-center compositions many times before, this particular image stands out. In the image, he has allowed the figure to fill the frame, without giving in to the usual melodramatics. Wrapped in a fur-lined coat, one encounters Jackson’s gaze. Jackson is looking at Curtis, but he also seems to be looking through Curtis. Little attention has been paid to the compositional development of Curtis’ work as a portrait photographer, but there can be little doubt that as the modern world seemed to shrink in around him, Curtis increasingly moves ever closer to his subject, limiting the vantage point, increasingly focuses almost exclusively on the face, or upper body.  In this image, there is still enough peripheral information to build a compelling portrait that is closer to a modern day snapshot, a farewell, that would scarcely serve the needs of the ethnologist, who typically preferred images with as much clarity as possible, a consistent focal distance, the figure or action located in the center of the frame, and perhaps a ruler or grid somewhere in the background to provide scale.

A financial failure, the remaining materials amassed for The North America Indian project, including the photogravure plates, were sold to Charles Lauriat Co. for $1,000 plus royalties in 1935.

On Oct. 19th, 1952, at the age of 84, Curtis died alone in a small apartment in Los Angeles. Among his few belongings, was one complete set of The North American Indian.

In the early 1970s Curtis' original copper plates and photogravures were rediscovered at Lauriat's Book Shop in Boston and purchased by a group of New Mexico investors. It included all of the original copper plates used for The North American Indian. The newly assembled collection was then sold to another group of investors, also in New Mexico, and led by Mark Zapin in the mid-70s. The Zaplin Group retained the plates until 1982 when they were sold to a California-based investment group led by Kenneth Zerbe. He still owns them.

In 2012, a complete set sold for $1.44 million dollars at auction.

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