Edward S. Curtis American, 1868-1952


The vast majority of vintage Edward S. Curtis prints, more than 98 percent, are photogravures, one of the finest photographic printing processes available during Curtis's time. Large numbers of prints could be made with very consistent--and excellent-results. It was the chosen medium of early art photographers Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz and it was the ideal medium for Curtis's project, The North American Indian. 


Photogravures are a combination of photography and engraving renowned for their unusual subtlety and fine detail. After the photo was taken and a negative produced, a positive transparency was made. That positive was then chemically etched onto the surface of a copper printing plate yielding much softer, glowing tones than hand engraving. 


Curtis went to great lengths to perfect the plate, actually spending more time doing so than he did on any of his other photographic processes. Each plate was painstakingly etched to different depths in proportion to the darkness of the image in the original print. The darkest tones were etched the deepest to hold the most ink. 


When he was satisfied that each plate was perfect, he signed off and it was then inked and run through a high-pressure intaglio printing hand press by his printer. To be consistent with the high quality of the plates, Curtis selected the three finest handmade papers of the day on which to print the images: a Japanese vellum, a Dutch etching stock called Holland Van Gelder, and the finest of Japanese tissue paper.