A Brief History of the Curtis Orotones, Part 1

Updated: 6 days ago


Edward Curtis - The Vanishing Race. Orotone in original batwing frame, 1919.
“We all know how beautiful the stones and pebbles in the limpid brook of the forest where the water absorbs the blue of the sky and the green of the foliage. Yet when we take the same iridescent pebbles from the water and dry them they are dull and lifeless. So it is with the orthodox photographic print, but in the orotones all that translucency is retained, and they are as full of life and sparkle as an opal.”

Edward Curtis, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1919


Of all of Edward Curtis’s prints, his orotones or, as he marketed them, "Curt-Tones," are among the most prized. Also known as D'Orotones or goldtones, orotones are positive images printed on glass and backed with a golden metallic coating. The image is on the backside of the glass as seen by the viewer, and the natural refraction of the glass adds a sense of depth to the image. When combined with the lustrous quality of the reflective coating, orotones seem to rise from the surface. It is this opalescent, almost 3-D appearance that makes orotones so desired and valuable today.


Before the digital age, most photographs had one thing in common: they were printed objects produced by the effects of exposing photosensitive chemicals embedded in an emulsion to light. The first successful photographs, known as Daguerreotypes were created in 1839 and were made on metal plates. This process required extremely long exposures, and there was no means of reproducing the initial image. Within a decade, paper began to replace the metal as the base for the emulsion, but that process, too, only produced a single print.

A Curt-Tone print of Wishram Fisherman.

It was not until 1850, when Frederick Langenheim of Philadelphia patented his Hyalotype process for glass lantern slides, that things began to change. Glass provided a better base for the light-sensitive emulsion because it was less subject to expansion or contraction during different weather conditions. A year later, Frederick Scott Archer published his findings on the advantages of a process for producing positive images on glass plates, followed in 1857 by Joseph Glover and John Bold’s patent for what they called opaltypes, or positive images printed on milk glass.


The earliest form of what we know as a photographic negative today appeared in 1871 when Richard Leach Maddox discovered that a silver bromide mixture combined with gelatin could be coated on a glass plate. Maddox decided not to patent the process, and a short two years later, Charles Harper Bennet started to sell the first gelatin dry plates. This was the beginning of a revolution that provided the basis for photography for the next 100 years.


Curtis is sometimes credited with inventing the orotone technique, but the process he used was based upon these well-known methods of creating images on glass. Even so, it was not long after he took up photography in 1891 that he began to experiment with ways to improve upon those processes. On December 12, 1896, the Seattle newspaper The Argus reported,

  • "One of the greatest examples of business energy and perseverance to be found in Seattle today is the firm of photographers and photo engravers, Curtis & Guptill, doing business at 614 2nd Ave. They thoroughly understand their business and all the latest advancements are immediately secured by them. Their latest achievement is a photograph on a gold or silver plaque. The method is original with Curtis & Guptill and is closely allied with the method used by the Japanese. The effect is brilliant and beautiful beyond description."

No other information has been found about this process, and we don't know if it was the basis of Curtis's later and more successful technique. The mention in the article of “the method used by the Japanese” refers to the maki-e lacquer technique. Developed during the Heian period (794-1185), maki-e involves the application of metallic powders or leaves, especially gold or silver, to a wet lacquer coating on an object or painting. At the end of the 19th century, the process was once again in vogue as part of the popularity and influence of Japanese art on French impressionists and other fin de siècle artists. It's uncertain if Curtis or Guptill were aware of the maki-e process or if the reviewer was simply using it for comparison to their technique; however, the similarities between this method and the later orotone process cannot be overlooked.


'Fuji Tagonoura', a maki-e painting by Shibata Zeshin, 1872. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the promising description of this early attempt, Curtis seems to have abandoned his experiments with printing with gold in order to concentrate on The North American Indian. Sadly, no examples of the 1896 prints are known to exist.


It was not until 20 years later that Curtis or someone at his studio took up the quest for printing golden images on glass. Margaret Gaia, an assistant in the Curtis Studio from April 1917 to mid-1919, provided some tantalizing snippets about the development of the process. She claimed, without offering any details, that (Edward) Edwin Johanson developed the formula for the Curt-Tones. In 1913, Curtis hired Johanson as an assistant photographer to fill the gap left by the multi-talented Adolph Muhr, who died unexpectedly that year after working in the studio for six years. Muhr had been responsible for much of the darkroom magic behind the prints of The North American Indian, and Johanson carried on that work without a noticeable difference in the quality of the final outputs. He continued to work at the Seattle studio until Curtis moved to Los Angeles in 1920.


If Johanson was responsible for the remarkable quality of the Curt-Tones, he might have been influenced or assisted by one or more of three other workers in the studio at that time. Records show that Curtis employed three Japanese men, including studio assistant Josuke Kuniyasu (hired in 1900) and two printers, Tay Takano and Harry Koniashi, both of whom Curtis hired in 1917. Although there is no documentation about the development of the Curt-Tone process, given the similarities between the Japanese maki-e and orotone processes, it is not unreasonable to believe that at least one of these men had some part in the process’s formulation.


The Curt-Tone method seems to have been perfected sometime in second half of 1918. On February 1st of the following year, Curtis held the first exhibition of orotone prints at the Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles. The next day, Anthony Anderson, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a glowing review of the show (see an excerpt at the start of this article).


Curtis's quote in the Times review is the first known use of the word “orotone” to describe the process for which he has become so well-known, and, as such, Curtis is thought to be the originator of that term. He had a long-time fascination with gold (“oro” is the Spanish word for gold), and the new name sounded both exotic and expensive. However, soon after the exhibition Curtis decided to change the name of the new prints in order to put his personal brand on them



Two weeks after the Los Angeles Times article, The Curtis Studio placed the first of two ads in Seattle’s Town Crier newspaper. In the February 15 issue, the studio touted several products, including a “Cur-Tone” (without the first “t). The name either was inadvertently misspelled or Curtis had not yet decided on the final spelling for the process. The second ad appeared on March 22, saying, “Prints or CURT-TONE productions obtainable.” This is the first dated publication of the term "Curt-Tone." After Edward moved to Los Angeles in 1920, the Curtis Studio in Seattle (then operated by his former wife) published ads with multiple misspellings, calling the prints "Curt-ones." These would appear to be the result of poor proofreading since purposely printing the wrong name would have been counter to their business interests.


The Seattle studio also published a small, undated catalog of 33 orotones for sale, with the cover title Curtis Indians. It included the studio address of 4th and University, where they moved to in April 1917. The text said that the “Curt-Tone finish” was new and reprinted the quote from the Los Angeles Times (see above). However, in the studio publication, the word “orotone” was replaced with “Curt-Tone.” This change suggests that the catalog was published about the same time as the March 22 newspaper ad.


Research has shown that the Curtis Studio's orotone process modified previous methods in two significant ways. First, rather than using gold leaf or powder, they used finely ground brass powder. Since brass was much less expensive than gold, it could be liberally applied, resulting in an evenly lustrous appearance. Secondly, they used banana oil (amyl acetate) as the flowing agent for the powder. After the image was printed on glass, the banana oil mixed with brass powder was flowed by hand over the back of the image. Although the exact chemistry of this process has not been analyzed, it appears that the banana oil provided a very durable suspension liquid that allowed the brass power to form a uniform reflective layer from edge to edge. The flowing process, however, was very unpleasant for those who were involved. Curtis's assistant Margaret Gaia wrote that "The banana oil stunk to high heaven. On the days that I did the flowing, the German piano teacher in the basement got his students to pound on our floor because it smelled so awful."


Diagram of an orotone print

The Curtis Studio in Seattle created and sold Curt-Tones until 1920, when Edward moved to Los Angeles. The Curtis Studio there also sold this style of prints, usually with the letters “L.A.” added below Curtis’s signature. The LA studio was managed initially by his daughter, Beth, and later, jointly with her husband, Manford (Mag) Magnuson.


Following Curtis’s debut of the orotone process, a dozen or so other photographers began to create their own versions of this style of prints. Foremost among these was Curtis’s brother, Asahel, who produced several renditions of his well-known Mount Rainier images. Other photographers whose orotones are collected today include Albert Henry Barnes, James Bert Barton, Norman S. Edson, and Charles Van Olinda, all from the Seattle area.


Unfortunately, the success of the initial reception for Curt-Tones was short-lived. The style was particularly well-suited to showcase Curtis’s Native images, which he had produced in his signature warm-toned, pictorialist style for many years. As the 1920s progressed, American society became more and more fascinated with looking to the future rather than dwelling on the past, whether it was in the arts, culture, or social values.


By the time The North American Indian project was completed in 1930, orotones, as well as most of Curtis's Native images, were no longer popular. It was not until the 1970s that Curtis's photography was rediscovered, and a new generation of collectors began to see the beauty and value in these works. As part of this resurgence, photography dealers promoted the term "goldtone" as a new way to market the prints. It remains a popular way to refer to Curt-Tones today.


Coming soon: Part 2, a look at the various frames and presentation methods for Curt-Tones.

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