The Curtis Studios, Part 2: Prime Time in Seattle

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

This is the second in a three-part story about the Curtis studios over the years. Find part 1 here.

The office at the Curtis studio, 4th and University Streets in Seattle, 1917.

After Thomas Guptill’s surprise departure from Seattle in 1897, Edward Curtis decided he was ready to go it alone. His previous business partnerships had been less than satisfactory, and he was starting to make a name for himself in Seattle. Fortunately, within a year, another and much larger studio space became available. In late 1898, Curtis moved into the former studio rooms of another popular Seattle photographer, Frank La Roche. The new space, at 709 Second Avenue, was perfect for Curtis’s style of photography. Located on the top floor of the building, it offered lots of natural light and was spacious enough to be used as a gallery to exhibit his photos from time to time.


Fortune had another plan for Curtis, however, and not long after he moved to his new studio, he received an invitation that would change his life forever. In early 1899, Curtis was asked to be the official photographer on what became known as the Harriman Alaska Expedition. At the behest of railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman, Curtis spent two months traveling with some of America’s leading scientists and naturalists as they explored the coastline of Alaska on a luxurious private boat. For Curtis, who as a child had received no more than a sixth-grade education, the trip was a highly-compressed college-level education in natural sciences and in the ethnology of the Alaska Natives they met along the way. He returned from the trip with a new commitment to explore his interests in the Native Peoples of the Northwest and beyond.


Curtis’s participation in the expedition further added to his reputation as the premier photographer in Seattle, and, as demand for his studio portraits increased, Curtis decided to add to his studio staff. He hired Josuke Kuniyasu (1879-1966), a recent immigrant to Seattle from Japan, to be the all-around helper and darkroom assistant. Kuniyasu remained as an employee until 1920.


Edward’s newfound enthusiasm for Native cultures coincided with a growing interest among the more well-to-do members of American society in Native arts, especially baskets and blankets. Driven in part by the importance of the arts and crafts movement at the end of the 19th century, wealthy and even middle-class collectors fueled a new trend in interior design: the “Indian corner.” Intended as both a casual space for family interactions and a showcase for expressing the personal and artistic tastes of the owners, Indian corners were also fueled by a growing nationalistic interest in all things American at the start of the new century.


Curtis had started buying Native artifacts during his travels around the West during the late 1890s, and it did not take him long to realize that featuring Native blankets and baskets in his studio provided additional “authenticity” for his photographs. He created and began to advertise his studio’s Indian corner, and he soon had a steady clientele looking for his latest finds.

Curtis Studio advertisement for their Indian corner.

Curtis’s stature as a photographer and burgeoning expert on Native cultures was given an enormous boost in 1904 when he was invited by President Roosevelt to photograph the younger Roosevelt children. Curtis not only created delightful portraits of the family, he also bonded with the president over their shared interests in the changing American West. Encouraged by Roosevelt, Curtis returned to his studio now determined more than ever to greatly expand his portfolio of Native images into something more than just prints that hang on walls. He put together a series of exhibitions of his prints, culminating in a major show at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.


Among those who had attended the New York show was Louise Saterlee, the married daughter of Wall Street titan J. P. Morgan, and, with her help, Curtis was given a rare opportunity to meet with Morgan in early 1906. Morgan was so impressed with Curtis’s photographs that he agreed to provide the initial financial support for what was to become Curtis’s decades-long obsession, The North American Indian.


Upon his return to Seattle, Curtis immediately began to make plans to spend as much of his time as possible taking new photographs and recording detailed information about Native cultures and lives. He knew this meant that he would need help in running the Seattle studio, which up until that time had been entirely under his control, assisted in part by his wife Clara and some of her relatives.

Portrait of Adolph Muhr by Alfred Brisbois, 1890

After a brief search, Curtis hired photographer Adolph Muhr to manage the studio’s darkroom and be the point person to produce all of The North American Indian photographs. Muhr came to Seattle from Nebraska, where he had worked with photographer Frank Rinehart. Rinehart was credited with taking hundreds of portraits of Natives who attended the Trans-Mississippi Exposition and Indian Congress in Omaha in 1898, although it was later revealed that Muhr was the man behind the camera. When one compares the similarity of Muhr’s photographic style with that of Curtis, it’s easy to see why Curtis entrusted him with such important work at the Seattle studio.


Muhr is also responsible for encouraging the artistic development of two women who would later become important photographers. In 1907, Curtis hired Ella McBride, whom he knew from his mountaineering days, and Imogen Cunningham, a recent graduate of the University of Washington, to work as assistants at the studio. Since Curtis was in the field most of the time, Muhr became the young women's mentor. Cunningham worked at the studio until 1909, when she left to study in Europe. McBride continued at the studio until 1915 when, after unsuccessfully trying to buy the studio from Curtis, she left and set up her own studio just a few blocks away.


Curtis vastly underestimated how long it would take to complete The North American Indian project. He initially said it could be completed in five years, and as that deadline approached, he devoted more and more of his time to the project. The fieldwork was much more time-consuming than he anticipated, and, under the terms of J. P. Morgan’s support, Curtis was required to raise the money necessary to print and sell the expensive book sets he was creating.


Clara Phillips Curtis

By 1910, he was spending most of his time away from Seattle, leaving the studio's running to his wife, Clara, and Adolph Muhr. The long absences caused increasing friction between Curtis and Clara, who felt overburdened by the financial stress of running the studio and the emotional stress of caring for their four children by herself.


The situation escalated dramatically in 1913 after two unexpected deaths of people who had been essential to Curtis’s continued success: on March 31st, J. P. Morgan passed away while vacationing with his family in Egypt. Fortunately, Morgan’s family decided to continue supporting The North American Indian project, although with increasing stipulations. Just when Curtis was beginning to get over the stress of that shock, Adolph Muhr suffered a fatal heart attack on November 1st. Although stunned by Muhr's sudden death, Curtis acted quickly to fill his position. He hired Edwin Johanson of San Francisco to be the new head portrait photographer, Nels Lennes as an assistant photographer, and two Japanese printers, Tay Takano and Harry Koniashi, to make up the loss in the darkroom.


A minor disaster struck in early 1914 when a fire of unknown cause swept through the Downs Building where Curtis’s studio was located. Newspaper reports indicate that, although some prints, baskets, and blankets were ruined by water damage, the main gallery and, more importantly, the storeroom where The North American Indian negatives were kept, did not suffer any lasting damage. Curtis was in New York when this happened, and, after learning that his negatives were safe, he decided he would remain there to conclude his business. Clara and Beth Curtis, along with Ella McBride, had to handle all the chaotic cleanup.


Events like this only added to Clara’s stresses, and by 1916, she reached the point she could take no more. She filed for divorce, a story that made front-page headlines in Seattle. Edward was devastated, in part because he was so wrapped up in his work that her action came as a surprise to him and, perhaps more importantly, as part of her filing she asked to be awarded complete ownership of the studio and its contents. Edward responded by refusing to come back to Seattle for many months in order to avoid being served with the divorce papers. He finally was cited for contempt for failure to appear, and in June 1918, the case was heard before a King County judge.


Oddly, not long after the initial excitement of the divorce proceedings died down, the Curtis Studio moved to a new and grander location at 4th and University Streets. No records have been found to indicate how much Edward was involved in this decision, but since the studio was still legally in his name at that point, he must have agreed to the change. In the new location, Curtis's daughter Beth took over a full-time manager, assisted by a multi-talented woman named Mia Gaia and long-time employees Josuke Kuniyasu, Edwin Johanson, Tay Takano and Harry Koniashi,


Locations of the various Curtis studios in Seattle.

In 1919, the court ruled in Clara's favor and awarded her complete ownership of the studio and its contents; real estate jointly owned by the couple; custody of their youngest child, Katherine; and $100 a month in alimony. Soon after hearing of the decision, either Edward or Beth (it's not clear who) arranged for studio workers who were loyal to Edward to remove and break all of the glass-plate negatives of Native images that Edward didn't want. There's no record of Clara's response to this action, but she did not let it deter her from continuing to run the business. She and her sister, Sue Gates, managed the studio from that point forward.


The following year, Edward and Beth moved to Los Angeles, where they set up a new studio with Beth in charge. Clara continued to the name "Curtis Studio" in Seattle until she sold the business and retired in 1927.

Stay tuned for part 3, The Los Angeles Years, in the weeks to come.


For more about "Indian corners," see Elizabeth Hutchinson, The Indian Craze: Primitivism, Modernism, and Transculturation in American Art, 1890-1915, Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

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