Aspen gallery owner shares passion for the work of Edward S. Curtis
ASPEN – Mia Valley has been talking about Edward Sheriff Curtis, the photographer who zealously documented native American tribes in the early 20th century, for three decades. In her senior year at Aspen High, she got a job at Footloose & Fancy Things, a shop geared toward Southwestern items, including a substantial trade in Curtis material. Valley worked there for nine years, then helped open another gallery that focused even more closely on Curtis. After a few years of handling Curtis as a private dealer, Valley opened Valley Fine Art in a street-level space in the Wheeler Opera House building.Over that time, Valley has met her share of Curtis fanatics. A Wisconsin native, Curtis was without peer in documenting the life of American Indians – he not only took some 40,000 images of 80 tribes, but also recorded their music and language and did extensive writing about what he saw. Aspen has become something of an epicenter for Curtis collectors, with several galleries through the years dealing in his output. Valley can’t say for certain that she is the world’s biggest Curtis dealer, but she does have the largest gallery collection in the country. So the Curtis-heads do find her, which Valley enjoys; she collects stories as much as she does prints.”People tell me about images they’ve seen, that their grandmother had on her wall, their experience in a place that Curtis photographed. Artists who have drawn or painted a particular Curtis image,” Valley said. “Most people have a story. So for me, it’s not only about the work, but the experiences around the work, the interaction with clientele.”Not long ago Valley got the chance to feel like a blabbering Curtis fool herself. In the summer of 2010 a 50-something man, John Graybill, came into the gallery to look at the work. Graybill, Valley learned, was a photographer from Colorado; eventually it came out he was also a great-grandson of Curtis. Last October, Graybill accompanied Valley to Canyon de Chelly, on the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona. Curtis made one of his most famous photographs in the canyon, a group of people on horseback, dwarfed by a massive rock formation and the surrounding desert.”Just meeting him was one of the most impactful things that’s happened in my career,” Valley said at her gallery Tuesday morning. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven: Curtis’ grandson is standing in front of me. And I had never been to the canyon. It was a little disappointing because of the weather, but it didn’t matter. It was magical. It was a connection for me that was in addition to everything I’ve done for two decades.”The rest of the Curtis enthusiasts get a chance to make a connection. Friday, Valley Fine Art has a reception for its current exhibition, Edward S. Curtis: A Life’s Work. In attendance will be Graybill and his two sisters, Ann Graybill Bonin and Janet Graybill Parcher; according to Valley, it is the first time any of the Curtis great-grandchildren will be appearing at a show of their ancestor’s work. The exhibition, an ambitious one that collects rare photogravures, unpublished images from the estate, and complete volumes and portfolios from Curtis’ monumental project, “The North American Indian,” opened two weeks ago and continues through Aug. 15.••••A Life’s Work, indeed. Curtis, who built a camera for himself soon after dropping out of sixth grade, began shooting portraits of Native Americans in 1895, when he was in his mid-20s. In 1906, banker and art collector J.P. Morgan hired Curtis to produce a series on American Indian tribes. It was to be a massive undertaking of 20 volumes of photographs plus essays. Curtis probably saw it as a way of financing his passion and spent some 30 years capturing a culture before it vanished.”Curtis was obsessed with documenting the Native Americans,” Valley said. “He saw what was happening, the demise that was happening very quickly. He was doing the work, as Theodore Roosevelt put it, of an entire institution.”Curtis’ “The North American Indian” was sold as a subscription series. (The Valley Fine Art exhibition includes an original copy of the sales prospectus that Curtis circulated to potential buyers.) Those who put up between $3,000 and $3,900 received a complete set of the 20 portfolios; each portfolio had nearly 40 prints plus smaller images and text. In total, a set contained 722 large photos, nearly 1,200 smaller ones and approximately 4,000 pages of text, all written by Curtis. Two-hundred and seventy-two sets were made, with Morgan claiming 20 sets as payment. The $3,000 price tag was steep at the time, but proved to be a good investment: In June, a complete set of “The North American Indian” was sold for a record $2.9 million. One-third of the sets are now housed at museums or institutions.Because of the way Curtis approached the project, the venture was a constant financial struggle, despite the seed money from Morgan and the subscription sales. Curtis gave talks and lectures and showed films to raise money to keep his endeavor going. When he could afford it, he hired an interpreter or field help; when he couldn’t, Curtis went alone to the tribes.Curtis was well respected by his subjects. “The North American Indian” portrays the people in a solemn, dignified way, but that was Curtis the artist and documenter shaping the narrative; the official project was intended to capture a way of life that was fading, near extinct. But Valley has a large collection of unpublished images that show people smiling.”That’s not what Curtis was trying to portray. He was showing a particular point in history,” Valley, whose gallery does roughly half its business in Curtis material, said. “But you can tell the Native Americans enjoyed working with him, or felt safe. In most cases they wrote to him to come to them to photograph and talk to them. They really trusted him. They had to – you look at the images, they’re so intimate.”Curtis used three different kinds of handmade photographic paper for his prints. None of them can be duplicated, which is a big part of the reason his work has retained so much value. “The North American Indian” was printed by a Boston printer, but Curtis himself also made silver and platinum prints in the Seattle studio that he established in the late 1880s. But Curtis didn’t profit much from his efforts. In part because of a divorce, he lost the copyrights to much of his photography. He became an assistant cameraman on Hollywood films and worked occasionally with Cecil B. DeMille. When he died, in 1952, he was broke.Such facts and stats roll off Valley’s tongue. But still has a thirst to learn more about Curtis. John Graybill is bringing his great-grandfather’s field bible with him, which opens up a new set of questions for Valley.”He may have had this bible to compare Western religions with the spirituality of the different tribes,” she speculated. “There’s not a lot written about Curtis’ spirituality. There’s a lot of unanswered questions. So I’m always learning.”When I talk about Curtis with John, we both get very excited. He has a lot of questions for me and I have a lot of questions for him.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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