My favorite photograph is the next one

How a Guy with Glass Plate Negatives Influenced Your Photography.


Edward Sheriff Curtis “became” a photographer back in 1885 at the age of 17. Back then you didn’t just have a camera and were a professional photographer. He did a 2 year apprenticeship and when he was 19 became an entrepreneur by buying a 50% share of an existing studio for $150. Soon after he opened a new studio where he had more control.

In 1895 Curtis created his first portrait of a Native American when he had Kickisomlo, the daughter of Seattle Chief Sealth, come to him for a session. Her portrait is the third image from the top left in my montage. Five years later Curtis was invited to be the photographer for an expedition among the Blackfeet Indians.

Curtis’s work was supported by a $3,000 grant by American tycoon J. P. Morgan. Morgan was as passionate an art collector as he was as a ruthless businessman. Morgan knew the Native American culture was vanishing and wanted Curtis to document it. Curtis set about the task with a passion and worked among 80 tribes collecting information. He not only created approximately 40,000 photographic images using 5×7 and 11×14 glass plates but also made an estimated 10,000 recordings of native languages and music on beeswax cylinders.

So how does Curtis’s work influence modern photographers? Threefold; first – if you ever decide to record a way of life that is vanishing, you’re following the path that Curtis laid. If you’re O. Winston Link taking pictures of railroads, or Richard Avedon creating portraits In The American West, or simply taking pictures of farms and mom and pop stores in your community before they become shopping malls and drug store chains then you’re influenced by Curtis.

Secondly – Curtis’s tools have influenced your photography, especially if you’re a member of the wave of photographers emerging since the millennium. One of the trends I see in images is a short depth of field – for example the eyes are in focus but the ears are out of focus. I think this is not so much an artistic decision as it is a result of photographers working solely with natural light sources and not knowing how to “kiss” the subject with some additional light. When shooting like that the eyes tend to come out dark and “racoony” looking (racoony – I just made that phrase up but you can use it) so to overcome it you either allow more time for the exposure, which hand held operators are loath to do, or allow more light to enter the lens – adjust your f/stop to a “lower” number which not only allows more light into your exposure but shortens your depth of field.

Curtis’s images tend to do that – look at the top row, 2nd from the right image; do you see that his face is in focus but the feathers of his headdress are out of focus? Curtis was faced with glass plates that were very insensitive to light and natural light conditions that were often very subdued. Faced with a 10 minute exposure at f/16 or 1 minute at f/4 he chose the latter. So the next time you shoot wide open to get that eyes only focus effect think Mr. Curtis.

And last if you like warm tones or sepia prints you are influenced by photographers like Curtis. One of the most beautiful things about a real black and white or sepia print is how rich the materials are. But most of what we see now is on a monitor or is printed on color paper. Curtis and his peers were working with papers rich in silver, gold or copper. Many of Curtis’s prints are photogravures so the rich sepia tones you’re seeing are the results of the copper.

Back in the 1980s Kodak did a survey on how people responded to sepia or warm toned prints versus black and white or cold toned prints. My personal work was always printed on black and white papers rich in silver and then toned with selenium to give them a cool slightly blue tone. Kodak’s research found that this kind of work made people more “analytical” in their interpretation of a photograph. Warm tones, such as sepia, elicited a more emotional response. So in the 1990s all my “black and white” portraits were shot on a monochromatic film that could be developed with C-41 color chemistry and printed as sepia prints. Why did I want an “emotional” response to portraits? Because my client base was women and I didn’t want them to analyze their photographs of their children but to connect emotionally to them.

So there you have it. Three reasons why a guy who took pictures of Indigenous Americans with glass plates has influenced your work today.

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