“Edward S. Curtis: Unpublished Alaska Photographs and Personal Journal”
Colin Graybill; Vedere Press; 308 pages; $129.95
“Navigation here opens in July and closes at the end of August,” wrote photographer Edward S. Curtis in his diary on September 10, 1927, preparing to sail from Kotzebue to Cape Prince of Wales. “The local boaters won’t attempt it.”
He tried. He completed his life’s work.
Curtis was a renowned photographer who spent decades working on a project called Indians of North America, a 20-volume series documenting Native Americans across the continent in the early 20th century. His trip to Alaska was the last trip in the last volume, and it contained more photographs than could be included. Now, thanks to the Curtis Legacy Foundation and Colleen Graybill, wife of Curtis’ great-grandson John Edward Graybill, more than 100 of these largely unseen images can be found in Unpublished Alaska, a wonderful addition to any Alaska history library. .
Uncharted Alaska is two related books. This is a beautiful collection of photographs taken by Alaskans who lived in the Bering Sea during a period of historical change and is a travel journal. Curtis’s daughter Beth accompanied him for most of the trip, and the diaries of each provide the text. This combination allows for a double check of time and place, one that acknowledges the locals while at the same time giving an idea of how this region of the world, still unknown to Americans, appeared to newcomers.
Edward and Beth traveled from Seattle with Stuart Eastwood, Curtis’s longtime assistant, for a story that had been chronicled through their magazines earlier that summer. One of the advantages of reading diaries rather than memoirs is that you get the thoughts of individuals as they are, rather than in the past. Thus, on June 14, Beth described the first ice that greeted her eyes as “huge chunks of the most fantastic shapes…beautiful in shades of blue and green.” “Worse, we’re all getting tired of the ice,” he cried as he waited for the passage to open just four days later, when the ice was closed from the shore indefinitely.
It’s subtleties like these that make written reports so compelling. As Edward prepares to escape from Kotzebue before a winter storm hits the open water, he experiences some of the worst seas known to navigators. We know this because we have been with him all this time.
Curtis was forced to see as many villages as possible in one season. When the party finally disembarked from Nome (“what it looks like,” he wrote, “a desolate mining town”), they bought a 40-foot boat called the Jewel Keeper. Skipped by the man known as Harry the Fish, they headed out into the choppy sea towards the outlying settlements where Edward set his lens on people, places and things and flew away.
The photographs presented in this book capture parts of everyday life on Nunivak, King and Little Diomede Islands, as well as Selawik, Noatak, Hooper Bay and elsewhere. Traditional livelihoods were still practiced and in evidence, but slowly things changed. Gasoline engines for water vehicles were introduced. Curtis was approached by missionaries who challenged him sometimes with humor and sometimes with venom. schools were opened. The U.S. Post Office, aided by the handiwork of the party, as well as the wireless telegraph, had recently created new methods of communication between communities. The arrival of the party was expected in many places.
The photos themselves are stunning. At Nunivak, a small boy with the face of a laborer stands by a kayak (boats invented centuries ago in the Bering Sea, and perfect for use in its conditions, were still a novelty at the time). Americans and Europeans don’t even have an accepted spelling for them). In Selawik, a man steps out of the entrance of one of the half-built, grass-covered houses that are widely used throughout the region.
Getting to Little Diomedes itself was a challenge, as we know from Edward’s journal, but there he took some great pictures. The best of these is called “Pulling the Boat into the Water” and depicts a hunter with a boat on top and on his head, facing the sea as if preparing to dive.
This photo was more likely to exist and the others were obvious. Over the years, Curtis’s work has been criticized for taking formal photographs of the continent’s Native Americans in traditional clothing rather than documenting daily life (in fact, he did both). It’s important to remember that Curtis made a small portion of his income from studio photography. Many photographs are included here, including “Boating on the Water” artistic portrait works, as well as historical resources.
Curtis approached the people he chose as subjects in the same way that wealthy patrons did in his studio. The picture of O-la (Nashoaluk), a woman from Noatak, depicts her beauty and dignity, and also perfectly displays the fur of her parka. This is one of many photographs he took there and elsewhere.
Tools, poles, boats, housing and more. (including the famous cliff houses on King Island) were filmed. Readers will see what the residents of these communities see every day. The simple yet hauntingly beautiful “The Rowing Boat” captures five people in an open boat on Little Diomede, bathed in subarctic sunlight.
As with any historical document, some of the diary entries are indecent by today’s standards, but that should not diminish the importance of this book. Curtis traveled the world for the nation that followed him. Hopefully they’ve documented it and helped humanize it in ways that make it accessible to Americans. Their work allowed us to understand their time and how it brought us. Uncharted Alaska has a lot to offer.