Penn Libraries receives major donation of rare photographic plaques from Edward S. Curtis


The University of Pennsylvania Libraries received a rare collection of 151 interpositive glass plates from photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) collector William H. Miller III. Valued at $ 4.2 million, the donation to Penn Libraries complements the University’s funds, making Penn a major center for research and work on Curtis, one of America’s most prolific photographers of the late 19th century. and from the beginning of the 20th century.

Curtis photographed Native Americans from over 80 tribes for three decades. Choosing from the 40,000 photographs he took, he produced a 20-volume work titled “The North American Indian,” published between 1907 and 1930.

“Penn Libraries have made the creation, preservation and management of collections a strategic priority with an emphasis on education, access and sharing of resources,” said Constantia Constantinou, vice-rector and director of the libraries of H. Carton Rogers III. “It is an honor to receive this gift which considerably enriches our collections in the history of photography.

Images from the Edward S. Curtis Photography Collection, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts; University of Pennsylvania Libraries. Left: “Yákotlūs – Quatsino” (1914); right: “A young Hesquiat girl” (1915)

Curtis used a photoengraving process in which interpositive glass plates represent a key moment between capture and a final printed image. Each 14 x 17 glass negative prepared by Curtis was reprinted as a glass positive before the image was moved onto a copper plate for engraving. The vast majority of interpositive glass plates produced by Curtis have been destroyed. The collection of 151 plaques received by Penn Libraries is the largest group known to survive and contains details lost in the printing process.

Miller made the gift to Penn Libraries based on advice from Stephan Loewentheil, Founder and President of the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop and Member of the Penn Libraries Advisory Board.

“The use of glass plates by the great 19th century photographers, including Edward Curtis, required a tedious and time-consuming process involving heavy equipment, delicate glass plates, volatile chemicals, and great artistic ability to make every photograph is a success, “said Loewentheil.” The Penn Libraries, in collaboration with the Penn Museum, will make it possible to exhibit and study this process and the resulting masterpieces, allowing both wide exposure to the public and a study by experts, students and the interested public.

The researchers noted that Curtis removed aspects of modernity, such as alarm clocks, from the final impressions he made, and that many of his images are highly stylized. Curtis often posed the people he photographed for his “North American Indians” volumes in traditional clothing.

“Edward S. Curtis’ photographs raise complex issues of representing Native American peoples in the past and present,” said Christopher Woods, Williams Director of the Penn Museum. “This donation to Penn Libraries complements the existing Curtis collection at the Penn Museum. Through interdisciplinary collaboration at the University and beyond, we can create meaningful opportunities to expand teaching and research in conversation with today’s living Native American photographers, scholars, artists, students and community members. ‘hui.

The Penn Museum’s connection to Curtis dates back to 1912, when he first exhibited his photographs there. The museum archives have 66 platinum prints signed by Curtis and 109 photoengravings among their holdings. The museum library has a nearly complete set of the original edition of “The North American Indian; ”It is missing volumes one and four, among its 20 volumes of text, and portfolio 12 among the 20 volumes of portfolio plates that accompany it.

On the left, a portrait of an Aboriginal man, on the right, an image of two Aboriginal people rowing in a canoe on a lake.

Image from the Edward S. Curtis Photography Collection, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts; University of Pennsylvania Libraries. Left: “A Walker Lake Paviotso” (1924); right: “Canoe on the Clayoquot Strait” (1915)

Miller’s collection of interpositive glass plates also complements the growing photographic collections held by Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, which include recent donations from Arthur Tress and Laurence Salzmann. The Curtis plaques will join foundational collections in the history of photography, such as the Eadweard Muybridge Collection, and collections focused on Native American cultures and histories, such as the Berendt-Brinton Linguistic Collection and the Brinton Library; the Robert Dechert Collection; and the Caroline Schimmel Collection. Related materials across the University include the Muybridge Collections in the University of Pennsylvania Archives, two photographs of Curtis in the Penn Art Collection, and other collections of Curtis materials in the Penn Museum Archives.

Curators from the Penn Libraries and the Penn Museum will work together to study, interpret and present these works to the public, and to understand their significance alongside other objects, artifacts, images and books.

“Teaching with collections and making them accessible to researchers is at the heart of our work,” said Sean Quimby, Associate University Librarian and Director of the Kislak Center. “Staff at the Kislak Center are developing a plan to catalog, preserve and provide access to glass plates in the classroom, exhibition galleries and online. We look forward to partnering with colleagues at Penn to manage this collection. “

About the Kislak Center

The Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts advances learning and inspires discovery in the Penn community and around the world. The goals of the Kislak Center align with those of the Penn Libraries as a whole: to make our collections accessible; use technology in innovative and meaningful ways; improve teaching and research; and preserve our cultural resources for future generations.

About Penn Libraries

Penn Libraries provide a network of information resources and knowledge services essential for teaching, research and learning at the University of Pennsylvania. This network includes 14 physical libraries, recognized for their collections, and a digital library recognized for the innovation and the richness of its contents. Through exhibitions and lectures, as well as through the acquisition and preservation of literary and artistic artifacts, Penn Libraries document a multitude of social and historical periods, bringing scholarship to life at the University and in the various communities it serves.

Find a selection of downloadable images approved for publication on Box.


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