Newly discovered images by Edward Curtis
In 1927, photographer Edward Curtis left Seattle for Nome on the final leg of a journey that had taken him across the continent. He’d devoted three decades to a project called “The North American Indian,” a 20-volume collection of photographs of Native Americans taken on their lands. Alaska Natives along the Bering Sea coast would be his final subjects.
Upon reaching Nome, Curtis purchased a boat, hired a skipper, and with his grown daughter Beth Curtis Magnuson and his longtime assistant Stewart Eastwood, traveled to numerous villages, taking pictures of Indigenous residents whose forebears had inhabited the land for thousands of years, and who had only recently come into full contact with Europeans.
Curtis was a portrait photographer by trade, and his work reflects this. “When you look at all the other photographers in the same period that were out taking pictures of Native Americans,” his great-grandson John Graybill said, “they just did the straight, stiff, stand-up kind of photo.” By contrast, Curtis, John said, added “an artistic element with both the light and posing.”
In exchange for funding, Curtis had granted full rights to his images to the financier J.P. Morgan, and the originals are now in the public domain. The existence of additional photographs was unknown until one afternoon when John and his wife, Coleen, were cleaning out John’s parents’ house after moving them into an assisted living facility. “We started to find all these items that the family didn’t even know existed,” Coleen said. As the couple dug through boxes, “It started us guessing how many images we had that weren’t in ‘The North American Indian.’”
Quite a few, it turned out. The Graybills, both professional photographers themselves, quickly realized they had uncovered something of significant historic value. Wishing to share it with the world, they established the nonprofit Curtis Legacy Foundation, and began a massive project of their own: restoring these previously unseen photographs to their original print quality and presenting them in a fashion befitting the caliber of the work. The foundation’s first publication, Edward S. Curtis: Unpublished Alaska—Photographs & Personal Journal, is the result of their labors.
While some images in the book document life and subsistence practices in the region at the time, most capture people, either candidly or posed. Curtis had many of his subjects for the project dress in traditional regalia. Then he took professional quality portraits just as he did with wealthy patrons in his Seattle photography studio. “He told a story with how he photographed them,” Coleen said of Curtis’s style.
One example is his photograph of the Nashoalook family, whom he met in Noatak. The parents sit formally with their young daughter before a studio backdrop. And while their clothing is not what they would have been normally wearing on a summer day like the one they were photographed on, they certainly used it in winter. This beautiful image allows viewers to see the details of that clothing, all of it hand-made, and to see the faces of a young family, just beginning their journey through life together. This was, in the 1920s, uncommon in the emerging art of field photography.
Similarly captured is a young child in a full costume that’s still a bit too large, with an impish grin that any parent would recognize. It’s a picture bound to evoke similar smiles from those looking at it nearly a century later. At the other end of the age spectrum, the stern expression on the lined and tattooed face of A-bi-ka in a photograph taken on Cape Prince of Wales will leave readers pondering the life and experiences behind it.
Other pictures are less staged, taken as Curtis wandered about the villages, observing people’s daily activities. In Noatak, a woman carrying a bark basket pauses and smiles into the lens. A man near the shore in Nunivak appears even happier, although the child Curtis photographed nearby, leaning against a beached kayak, seems a bit grumpy. We’ve seen this look on the faces of countless schoolchildren who didn’t want to smile for the camera.
While the photographs are a trove for anyone fascinated by Alaskan history and culture, the text that accompanies them is just as vital. Both Curtis and his daughter Beth kept journals that document the journey north, sailing the rough, icy, and potentially deadly waters of the Bering Sea. They offer impressions of Nome during its post-Gold Rush hangover (“it has the look of what it is,” Curtis wrote, “a deserted mining town”), of villages where traditional subsistence practices were still being followed, of the handful of white residents along the coast, and of the inevitable culture clashes that occurred when, despite their genuine sympathy for the needs and humanity of Native Americans, far from the norm in American society of the time, the Curtises encountered ways of life they struggled to understand.
Curtis was a practical-minded writer with an eye for details. Beth was a talented wordsmith who could have had a career as a travel author had she chosen to. The combination of their two viewpoints, with their observations made in real time, lends the book an immediacy that compliments the photographs perfectly. Beth returned to Seattle midway through the summer, but Curtis remained into fall, reaching additional villages by braving late season seas that, he wrote, “local boatmen would not attempt.”
“We had read bits and pieces of Curtis’s journal but had never sat down and read the whole thing, and it was fascinating,” Coleen said when asked about the writings. “I think it would make a good Hollywood movie,” John added.
Unpublished Alaska was something of a pandemic project for the Graybills, who took advantage of the lockdowns to edit the journals and choose the best photographs for their book. Along the way, the couple, who live in Colorado, showed the picture of the Nashoalook family to friends who immediately recognized the three-year-old girl in it as Anna Nashoalook Ellis, now in her 90s and living in Colorado Springs. The couple had already discussed photographing descendants of Curtis’s subjects, so they decided to reach out to her.
“At first the family was very anti-Curtis,” Coleen said. “They felt that Edward Curtis had made a ton of money off of the photographs of all these Natives.” In fact, he made none, and learning this led the Ellis family to rethink how they felt about Curtis. So much so that one of Anna’s granddaughters is now vice-president on the foundation’s board of directors, and Anna has become a close friend of the Graybills. “She’s 98, and she’s still kicking,” Coleen said.
Ellis has taken part in what is called the Descendants Project, an initiative undertaken by the foundation to track down people whose ancestors were photographed by Curtis and take pictures of them similarly posed and dressed in traditional regalia, using the same photographic technology as he did. Wearing a kuspuk, Ellis is shown in profile, looking slightly upwards, in an image that could easily have been one of Curtis’s photos. The stylistic reproduction in the new photographs is so precise, John said, that “A couple of times I’ve had people say, ‘oh, I’ve never seen that Curtis print.’ That made me feel so good.”
In another move that echoes Curtis’s work, the Graybills are not profiting from their efforts. The book is published by their nonprofit Curtis Legacy Foundation as a fundraiser. “Because his grandfather never saw any money, my dad thought nobody else should profit off of it,” John explained.
The Graybills feel the same way. Their work is being done through the foundation, which has been gifting copies of the book to public institutions across Alaska. “These pictures are so important for their descendants to see them,” Coleen said. Noting the impossibility of personally locating every one of them, the couple decided that donating copies to libraries, museums, universities, and schools would make the photos accessible and perhaps bring them to the attention of those descendants.
They have also applied for grants to create a traveling exhibit of Curtis’s work that they can take out to some of the villages where he took the photos. “We want it in the small communities that otherwise probably wouldn’t even see it,” John said about the proposed exhibit, which is of a type more often viewed in major city museums. “We would love to have it in all those places,” Coleen said of the remote communities Curtis visited, “and have those people see their families.”
What started with opening an old box stored in an attic has, for the Graybills, become a deep dive into a family history entwined with American and Alaskan history, leading the couple in an entirely unexpected direction, one they are fully embracing.
“We’re hoping that our work will help bring some knowledge and education and change to the world,” Coleen said.
To which John added, “Maybe we’ll make the world a little better.”
Longtime Alaskan freelance writer and book critic David A. James is the editor of Writing on the Edge, an anthology of contemporary Alaskan nonfiction and fiction.