WHEN THE AUCTION BOOKLET arrived in the mail, I thumbed through page after page of photos showing Native American artifacts. Tools. Knives. Triangle points. And more. Made from bone, stones, quills…
But when I reached the middle of the publication from Helbling Auctioneers* for a May 22 “Large South Dakota Artifact Collection” auction in Lakeville, Minnesota, I paused. Item #131 on the auction list features seven original 1907 photogravures by noted photographer Edward S. Curtis. He is well-known for documenting Native Americans living west of the Mississippi River via his incredible photography.
I was first introduced to Curtis while viewing 60 prints in his “The North American Indian” collection at the Montgomery (MN) Arts & Heritage Center in January 2020. It was a temporary installation funded by a $4,000 grant from the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation and an incredible gift to this community of some 3,000.
Curtis has a connection to the Montgomery area, moving from Wisconsin to nearby Cordova as a child. As he grew, Curtis often traveled with his preacher father, sometimes canoeing with him on the Cannon River. That fostered his love of the outdoors. And apparently his interest in photography. By age 17, he was working at a photography studio in St. Paul. Then, in 1887, the family moved to Seattle.
That’s the brief backstory on the man who would become famous for his historical photographic documentation of Native Americans. He lived with these peoples, observed them, understood them, respected them. And that shows in his portraits, his photographs of everyday scenes, of their lives.
The seven original photogravures on the May auction block are a mix of portraits and everyday life. I expect they will draw the interest of historians, collectors and others. Certainly, they caught my eye as I paged through all those photos of artifacts.
I appreciate the challenges long ago photographers like Curtis faced with equipment and the whole photographic process. They couldn’t fire off frame after frame to get the perfect image. Rather, they often had to get it right the first time. When I consider that, I am even more impressed by Curtis’ work. He was a master of craft, honed from his connection to the outdoors, his understanding of Native Americans and his desire to honor them with his photography.
FYI: The May 22 auction at the Holiday Inn & Suites in Lakeville begins at 10 a.m. and features primarily items from the Ernie & Barb Spaid Family Artifact Collection (from South Dakota). However, in the middle of the sale, a small collection from North and South Dakotas will be sold. That includes the seven original Edward Curtis 1907 photogravures. For more info about the auction, click here.
* Bob Helbling of Helbling Auctioneers of Kindred and Hankinson, N.D., is a distant cousin of my husband. I wrote this post because of my interest in the photography of Edward S. Curtis.
© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling