Mossback's Northwest: Meet Edward Curtis' lesser-known brother, Asahel

The younger Curtis brother's photographs shaped how we see the Pacific Northwest.

Edward S. Curtis is famed for his artistic documentation of the faces and lives of Indigenous peoples in his epic 20-volume work, The North American Indian. Though some of his techniques are controversial today, he created an indelible record in sepia prints. He devoted three decades to this masterwork, recording Native life as no one else had before or since. His work is well-known, the prints are highly collectible, and many of the images are iconic.

But Edward Curtis wasn’t the only Curtis to leave an extraordinary photographic legacy. It was as if creative lighting had struck twice in the same family — two men of incredible energy.

Their own portraits are revealing. Edward is now considered an artist, a romantic and man who was trying to record the beauty of a so-called “vanishing race.” He looks like a turn-of-the-century bohemian. His younger brother, Asahel, had a different style. He looked more like a bank clerk or an accountant, but he and his studio snapped an almost encyclopedic view of a region growing from frontier wilderness into modernity. His images were artful, but they didn’t romanticize. Asahel believed they represented the realities of the Northwest.

It’s Asahel Curtis’ legacy that we turn to for images of ourselves as settlers, builders, lovers of nature and destroyers of the same for gold, timber, transportation and commerce. If Edward’s images spoke to what was here before whites came, Asahel’s captured what came after. From the Klondike gold rush to the development of modern highways, Asahel’s work is so pervasive that it’s often taken for granted. Yet his photographs of nature and progress helped define the region.

Asahel Curtis and his older brother, Edward, were introduced to photography in their teens in their native Minnesota. In 1887, Edward and his father moved to Puget Sound to homestead. The rest of the family, including 14-year-old Asahel, followed the next year. Young Edward tired of farming and gave it up to pursue professional photography, setting up a studio in Seattle. It was a success. Edward took portraits, including a superb one of Chief Seattle’s daughter, Princess Angeline. He also did other commercial work, including portraits of Seattle’s growing well-to-do, producing gauzy images of scenery, even pictures of seminude women to suit Gilded Age tastes. In 1894, he hired young Asahel as an apprentice.

A few years later, with gold strikes in the Yukon, Asahel went to the Klondike to document the ensuing gold rush in places like Skagway and Dawson and the trails the prospectors followed. It was not an easy job. In addition to hauling supplies needed to sustain in the frigid wilds, it required transporting large glass plate negatives for taking pictures, bulky box cameras, photo chemicals and shooting in freezing conditions. Edward, seeing opportunity to bring the Gold Rush to a national audience, wrote an article illustrated with pictures for The Century Magazine, a story that created a sensation for the hardships and realism it portrayed.

The magazine credited Edward with the pictures, and he accepted the credit because Asahel worked for his studio. But he also expressly claimed to the editors that he had trod the snowy trails and taken them personally when he had not — they were Asahel’s photographs. His brother was enraged. After a blowup, Asahel quit Edward’s studio and the two remained estranged for the rest of their lives. Creatively, too, they went their separate ways.

Asahel went on to create the images that form the bedrock of contemporary regional identity. He was an avid outdoorsman. He photographed the natural world, the old-growth forests of the Olympic Peninsula, the mountains and glaciers and the new class of men and women who were recreational adventurers — like the Mountaineers, a group of which he was a founder. His camera documented hiking and mountaineering outings to Mount Rainier and Mount Baker.

He also unapologetically recorded the exploitation of that environment: the loggers, the railroads, the heavy work of turning the wilderness into cities and ships. And he wasn’t just documenting the growing and changing region, but he was a booster, a promoter of growth and development. His livelihood as a commercial photographer relied on it. He was an activist on behalf of business development. He worked steadily with chambers of commerce to promote the region. He was a founder of the Washington Good Roads Association and a promoter of more and better highways, especially ones that provided access to scenic areas. He owned an orchard in Eastern Washington and promoted rural roads and land reclamation. He lectured, he lobbied, he wrote letters to promote his causes.

Yet he also advocated saving some wilderness in national parks, like Mount Rainier. But he fought hard to limit the size of Olympic National Park so that those who made a living from the resource economy would not be negatively impacted. At one point he proposed that only the Olympic mountains viewed from Seattle be protected.

In the 1930s, it was Asahel’s images of natural beauty that formed the basis for Washington state’s exhibits at the Chicago, New York and San Francisco world’s fairs. He innovated with enormous prints and hand-colored images that only his studio could produce on a scale calculated to impress.

The city he focused on most was Seattle — from the booming settlement of the late 19th century to the modern city of the mid-20th. It was then that Seattle transformed from a frontier boomtown and remade itself with regrades of the landscape to spur development. It was then that the impressive skyscraper, the Smith Tower, rose and became, from 1914 until the 1960s, the tallest building west of the Rockies. He took images of mansions and bungalows, of synagogues and slums.

It was a city amidst transportation change, too. Horses yielded to trolley lines, then to automobiles and to aircraft. He took images of the post-frontier inhabitants, ranging from high school students to hospital nurses, catching dignitaries and foreigners who visited, picking out newsboys, suffragists and Japanese dancers. He also photographed Native peoples harvesting hops in the fields and the Makah of Neah Bay hunting whales.

He did stints as a newspaper photographer, too. He took pictures of newsworthy events, from early automobile accidents to dramatic fires to a Spanish flu victim. Along with natural beauty he also photographed the ideal of the future city presented by the design of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909: a vision that glowed when Asahel viewed it from Capitol Hill, a landscape that suggested the possibilities of a city dedicated to beauty, growth and a desire to perfect itself.

We might argue today over what that perfection is. But it’s safe to say that while Asahel recorded the Northwest for a half-century from the 1890s to his death at his studio in 1941, he also worked to drive its growth as steadily as any pioneer. His tool wasn’t a plow or a combine. It was a camera. Asahel’s images didn’t just record us, they actively shaped and defined us as no other photographer’s work had.

After his death, a nature trail along Internet 90 was named for Asahel Curtis. It seems fitting. The sound of the highway can be heard along with the roar of the gushing Humpback Creek amid Cascades old-growth timber. His ashes were interred here — that is, until the Columbus Day storm of 1962 smashed his monument and scattered them to the winds.

Asahel tried to capture a present that wanted to have it both ways — parks and highways, mountains and coal mines, a place that sustained farmers, loggers, city dwellers, tourists and millions of people without an ultimate cost to nature and wildlands. His photographs are more than snapshots of the past. They embody the contradictions we still live with today.

About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.