Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Edward Curtis had a big decision to make. For most of the past year, he had been confined to his bed due to a serious back injury, and now he had to decide whether to return to the lumber yard on the Kitsap Peninsula of Washington, where the accident happened, or find a different line of work. It was 1891, and since his father died three years earlier, Curtis had been the primary means of support for his mother, brother, and sister, who lived with him in their hand-built cabin in the woods.
During his recuperation, Curtis remembered the short time he had spent during his teenage years as an apprentice in a photography studio in St. Paul, Minnesota, and he longed for a more creative (and less dangerous) way to earn a living. Luckily for him, during his convalescence he was cared for by an attentive neighbor, Clara Phillips, and by the time he was ready to return to work, he was fully thoroughly charmed by her compassion and allure.
With the prospect of a wife and a family now in mind, Curtis decided to leap into the world of photography. He took out a mortgage on the family homestead and invested it in a photography business in nearby Seattle. Fortunately, such an opening had recently appeared.
Rasmus Rothi, a Norwegian by birth, had moved to Seattle in late 1888 or early 1889, and soon thereafter he opened a photography studio with two others, Adolph Cedarholm, and Peter Sanstrom. The Cedarholm, Sanstrom & Rothi Studio lasted less than a year before Cedarholm dropped out, and by the time that Curtis was looking to change his line of work, Sanstrom also had left the business. Seemingly emboldened by this unexpected opportunity, Curtis proposed to and soon married Clara Phillips on May 17, 1892. Sometime around that same date, the new Rothi & Curtis Studio, later called the Imperial Studio, began doing a brisk business at 713 Third Avenue in Seattle.
A recently discovered document suggests that Rothi and Curtis might have known each other prior to their partnership in Seattle. An 1885 census record from St. Paul, Minnesota, shows Rothi was employed there as a "photo printer" in the studio of Otto C. Pasel. A that time, the Curtis family lived in Le Sueur County, Minnesota, about 50 miles away. Edward later told his daughter Florence that as a teenager he had spent part of a year working at a photography studio in St. Paul. Could it be that Curtis met Rothi while both worked at the same studio in St. Paul? Thus far, no records have been found that might support this idea, but this new information suggests that it may be more than a coincidence that Curtis chose Rothi as his first business partner in Seattle.
The surviving photographs from the Rothi & Curtis studio show very standard fare for the period: stiff, formal portraits posed against plain or painted backgrounds. We don't know exactly how much Curtis was involved in the actual taking of pictures; as a relatively inexperienced partner, it's possible he was assigned to work mostly in the darkroom. Regardless of his duties, there is nothing in the photographs produced by the studio that would foretell the signature style that Curtis would create within just a few years.
In late 1893, Curtis made the decision to leave the partnership with Rothi. There is no known information that provides clues about why he made his decision at that time, but it appears to have been Curtis's call. Rothi continued to operate a photo studio solely under his name at the 713 Third Avenue address until about 1901.
Curtis then entered into a partnership with a man named Thomas Henry Guptill, and the two opened a new studio under the name of Curtis & Guptill at 614 Second Avenue, just a few blocks from his former address. Although we don't know much about Guptill, the few facts that are known about him paint an unusual life for that time. He was born in Washington, Maine in 1868 and lived there with his family until the late 1880s. An 1889 census record shows him living in Port Ludlow, Washington (on the Kitsap Peninsula), but how and why he got there is not known. At that time, he listed his occupation as a carpenter. It's possible that Curtis became acquainted with him during this time since both lived in the same area on the peninsula, although there are no documents that confirm this.
Guptill apparently had no photographic experience prior to his starting work with Curtis in 1894, but that didn't seem to be a deterrent. By all accounts, the Curtis & Guptill partnership quickly became a success. In 1896, the pair won a major award at the Photographers Association of America conference in New York City. A local newspaper article gushed, "That a Seattle firm should win so valuable a medal is a matter of gratification to all who are interested in the fame and advancement of the city." The article also mentioned that their engraving plant was so successful that it employed several people and "is rapidly attaining distinction."
Not long after that, things got very interesting. In March 1897, an article appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer with the headline "Married Five Years." According to the article, "A marriage license was issued here [Tacoma] yesterday, February 26, to Thomas H. Guptill to marry Ella Holland. The prospective groom is a well-known photographer of Seattle." This much is true, as there is a marriage certificate on file showing that Guptill and Holland married on this date. However, the article claimed that he had told his friends at the time he was going to California to study art and that he had never mentioned a girlfriend, much less a wife.
Even more interesting, and somewhat shocking at the time, was a claim by the Catholic priest who married them that they had already been married for five years. The priest refused to say more about the controversy, but in another newspaper article the following day he implied that the two had been living under what was then called a "contract marriage." Today, we would call this a common-law marriage, meaning that Guptill and Holland had been in a committed relationship as though they were legally married.
The article also said that neither the groom's parents nor Edward Curtis had ever heard of Ella Holland before the newspaper's revelation about the marriage. We now know that census records from 1900 show 30-year-old Ella Guptill was living in San Francisco with her daughter Marion. The daughter's birth date was listed as July, 1893, and her birthplace as Tacoma. The record does not indicate a husband for Ella, but her age is consistent with the marriage certificate in which she claimed she was born in Ireland about 1870.
Guptill either anticipated that the news of his marriage would create a controversy, or he simply became tired of his double life or adopted line of work (or perhaps both). Either way, in the same newspaper as the article about Guptill's marriage a legal notice appeared announcing the dissolution of the partnership of Curtis & Guptill effective two weeks earlier, on February 26. Guptill then moved the San Francisco to be with his wife. Sadly, she died in 1913 at the age of 43. In later census records, he listed his occupation variously as carpenter, salesman, and janitor.
By the time that Guptill decided to leave, Edward Curtis was confident enough in his own skills that he launched a new studio solely under his name. He had already started to create some of his signature images of Native Peoples who lived in and around Seattle, and he continued to earn praise and awards for his photography. Within just a few short years, Edward Curtis had gone from being bedridden to gaining national fame, and he had no intention of stopping anytime soon.
This is part one of a three-part series. Part 2, Prime Time in Seattle, is available here.
May 28, 2020: The original version of this post has been amended to include information about Rothi and Curtis in St. Paul.
Do you like reading stories like this? If so, please support our work. As a nonprofit organization, we depend on donations from readers like you.