- Tim Greyhavens
A Brief History of Curtis Orotones, Part 2
Updated: May 22, 2022
This is the second in a two-part series about the Curtis orotones. For part 1, click here.
The orotones of Edward S. Curtis are eye-catching from every angle. In addition to the images' lustrous gold tones, these prints stand out in part because of their beautiful frames. Because of the coated glass plate's fragile surface, every orotone was sold in a handmade frame that was "exclusively designed and toned to harmonize" with Curtis's warm pictorialist photographic style (the quote is from a Curtis studio brochure).
It appears that the earliest frames were created by the Schneider Art Galleries in Seattle, but there is no known documentation that confirms this. The fragile paper and labels on the backs of many prints have deteriorated over the years, and only a small number have the original backing intact. Since the prints were first intoduced in 1919, other framing specialists have added their designs to a growing list of stylistic variations. Orotone collectors have identified four main frame styles: batwing, pie crust, ranch, and ribbon, each with unique details that help identify them. There's no record of why the different frames were used, and some images were framed in more than one style. Edward Curtis moved to Los Angeles in 1920 and opened a new studio there, and his ex-wife Clara operated "The Curtis Studio of Seattle" (as it was renamed) until 1927. Both sold orotone prints, and their duplicate sales locations may be the main reason why the different framing styles emerged.
While there are four main frame styles, there are numerous variants of the batwing and pie crusts designs and a few variants of the other two styles. At the Curtis Legacy Foundation, we've identified 25 different variants of the batwing style and 14 variants of the pie crust style so far, and there may be more. The batwing variants all have the common elements of a stylized bat's wings spread across the corners of the frame with the animal's head touching or sometimes overlapping an inner frame. It is thought that the variant A is one of the earliest designs, but due to a lack of documentation and framer's labels on the prints, it has been impossible to accurately date when a frame was created.
The design concepts for both batwing and pie crust frames pre-date the creation of the Curtis orotone prints (in 1919). Both styles became popular in the Art Nouveau period of 1890-1910, whereas the ranch and ribbon styles have a distinct 1920's form with their simpler corners and lines. Each frame was carefully constructed by applying and carving gesso in varying layers over plain wooden frames. Some variant frames appear to have been created by making a mold of an existing frame and using that to recreate a similar design. For example, variant B above appears similar in design to variant A but with much softer edges and features. It's also possible that a different framer copied an existing frame but perhaps with less skill or time to complete the work.
There are at least two variants of the ranch and ribbon style frames (see below), but there may be more in private collections. Perhaps the most unexpected frame we've seen is a small, standing pie crust frame holding Maid of Dreams. The image measures only 3½" x 5", and the print might have been a salesman's sample or a personal keepsake.
Curtis did not keep a complete record of which images he chose to print using the orotone process, but by reviewing auction, dealer's, and collector's records, we've identified 67 different orotone-printed images. These range from his most famous early photographs, such as Cañon de Chelly and Chief of the Desert, to little-known later images, including a portrait of Bengali artist, poet, and writer Rabindranath Tagore and a little-known still from Cecille B. Demille's 1923 film Adam's Rib (often misidentified as Tarzan). In a 1919 catalog of orotone prints published by the Curtis Studio, he offered 33 prints for sale in four different sizes: 8" x 10" ($10.00), 11" x 14" ($15.00), 11" x 17" ($30.00), and 18" x 22" ($50.00). To give you an idea of how prized these prints were when they first appeared, $10 in 1919 would be equivalent to $150 today.
Since that first list, Curtis continued to create and offer other orotone titles. Some images were printed in more than one size, but we've counted each title only once. Click on the image below to download a copy of the complete list.