The Vanishing Race by Edward S. Curtis, Gelatin Silver Photograph, With Red Signature, 1904

Presented is an extremely scarce gelatin silver print of The Vanishing Race by Edward S. Curtis. Chosen by Curtis as the first photograph in his epic 20 volume photographic chronicle The North American Indian, The Vanishing Race is the most celebrated image of Curtis’ career. Curtis photographed this scene of Navajo disappearing down a trail head in 1904. Offered here in a very rare gelatin silver print format and even rarer size, the photograph is signed by Curtis in red wax pencil. 

Edward S. Curtis created one of the most enduring and iconic visual records in the history of the photographic medium. He was an award-winning artist, a consummate craftsman, an intrepid entrepreneur, and was highly regarded as a respected ethnographer and publisher.

Curtis began photographing Native Americans in the mid-1890s and selling these images in his successful downtown Seattle studio. He spent the summer of 1900 with George Bird Grinnell observing the Sun Dance at an encampment of Blood, Blackfeet, and Algonquin in Montana. This was a pivotal experience for Curtis, confirming his desire to study and photograph the Native tribes of North America. Curtis envisioned a plan to create a massive scholarly and artistic work that would document the tribes west of the Mississippi, their ceremonies, beliefs, daily life, and landscapes. Over more than two decades, Curtis turned these pictures and observations into The North American Indian, a 20-­volume chronicle of 80 tribes. 

No single image embodied the project better than The Vanishing Race, his picture of Navajo riding off into the distance. The Vanishing Race was photographed in 1904 during an early trip to document the Navajos' Yeibechei Dance near Chinle, Arizona. To Curtis, the photo epitomized the plight of the Indians, who were “passing into the darkness of an unknown future.” After searching for an iconic image to illustrate this idea for nearly four years, once created,  The Vanishing Race became Curtis’ signature piece and was used as the visual metaphor for Curtis’ entire thirty-year project. Curtis later selected The Vanishing Race to be used as the first image, Plate I in Portfolio I of The North American Indian

Curtis rarely printed his images as silver prints. In the early 20th century, photogravure was the preferred printing process for publication of images, due to the ease and cost of the printing medium. As such, it made sense for Curtis and his publishers to reproduce his photographs as photogravures in bound volumes and accompanying portfolios. Not surprisingly, The North American Indian consists entirely of photogravures. 

In contrast, the silver printing requires the photographer’s hand at every turn. Gelatin silver prints are made by enlarging the photographic negative or plate in an enlarger and exposing light through the negative image onto a photographic paper in the dark. The paper itself is coated with an emulsion of silver salts in gelatin and when processed in photographic chemicals, the substrate reveals a latent image on the surface of the paper. The gelatin silver process was first introduced in 1871 by Richard Leach Maddox and within a span of 20 years from its inception, Curtis mastered the art of silver printing. Curtis’ silver prints show extraordinary technical prowess in the medium.

Curtis’ gelatin silver prints and platinum prints make up less than 1% of all of the work he created. Curtis’ silver prints were created only for exhibition or direct sales to patrons and they were always made by Curtis himself. It is hard to quantify exactly how many silver prints of each image have surfaced because Curtis didn’t document how many he printed. One significant dealer in Curtis prints estimated “twenty five silver print examples of each image to have surfaced.”  Curtis silver prints, of any size, are very rare and almost never appear on the auction market. 

This silver gelatin print of The Vanishing Race was most likely printed by Curtis specifically for his East Coast exhibition tour of 1905-1906. Curtis chose only a small number of what he believed to be his finest negatives from which to produce one or two prints for the show. He never again mounted an exhibition of his work, nor produced such distinctive, large-format prints. After 1905, Curtis also discontinued his practice of signing in red wax pencil. The exceptional rarity and significance of this print cannot be understated. 

CONDITION: 

Good condition. Large traditional gelatin silver print, on double-weight textured paper.  Print is numbered '378-04' in the negative. It is signed in red wax pencil and blindstamped on the recto, bottom left. 

Print in good condition. Some silvering in the darkest areas of the image, especially at all edges. Very small losses of the image layer appear at the edges where once abraded by past frame rabbet. Photograph underwent paper conservation in January of 2021. The photograph was originally mounted to two layers of support paper. Conservator mechanically removed both layers of mount paper from the verso to slow the transfer of deterioration to the verso of the print. 

Photograph has been archivally presented in a new, custom built frame with new acid-free matting and museum glass. Framed Dimensions: 24 3/4" H x 29 3/4" W x 1" D.




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