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. Estimated at $ 4.2 million, this donation to Penn Libraries complements the University’s funds, making Penn a major center for research and work on Mr. Curtis, who was one of America’s most prolific photographers in the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
Mr. Curtis photographed Native Americans from more than 80 tribes for three decades. Choosing from among 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 building, 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.
Mr. 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 Mr. Curtis was reprinted as a glass positive before the image was moved onto a copper plate for engraving. The vast majority of the interpositive glass plates that Mr. Curtis had produced were 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.
Mr. Miller made the donation to the Penn Libraries based on the advice of Stephan Loewenthiel, 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 cumbersome and tedious process involving heavy equipment, delicate glass plates, volatile chemicals, and great artistic ability to make pictures. every photograph a success, “said Loewenthiel.” The Penn Libraries, in collaboration with the Penn Museum, will allow this process and the resulting masterpieces to be exhibited and studied, 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. Mr. Curtis often posed the people he photographed for his North American Indian volumes dressed in traditional clothes.
“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 Mr. Curtis dates back to 1912, when he first exhibited his photographs there. The museum archives include among their holdings 66 platinum prints signed by Mr. Curtis and 109 photoengravings. The museum library has an almost complete set of the original edition of The North American Indian. Volumes one and four are missing from its 20 volumes of text and portfolio — 12 of the 20 volumes of portfolio plates that accompany it.
Mr. Miller’s collection of interpositive glass plates also complements the growing photographic collections held by the Kislak Center at Penn Libraries 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. “