Passion . . . and 200 Prints Later


A single look was all it took.

Dan Solomon first fell in love with the photographs of Edward S. Curtis when he saw “Travaux. Piegan,” a moody image of Piegan Native Americans traversing the vast plains of the American West on horseback, circa 1900.

Solomon thrilled at the dignity, nostalgia and timeless universality of the scene.

He bought the print.

That was in 1990. After that, his passion for the famed, early 20th century photographer of Native American life--and the need to own his work--only grew.

Now, about 200 Curtis prints later, Solomon and his wife and collecting partner, Mary, have hung their love of Curtis on the walls of the Orange County Museum of Art in an exhibit drawn from their trove and called “Edward S. Curtis: Sites and Structures.”


“You know, I think the greatest photographers love their subjects so intensely it gets transmuted into the chemicals on the paper somehow,” said Solomon, who calls his attraction to Curtis a healthy obsession.

“And that’s certainly true of Curtis,” Solomon said. “He loved Indian culture.”

On view through April 1, the show features Curtis’ powerfully simple images of Native American dwellings, ceremonial structures and villages, less well-known than the imposing portraits of tribe members that are the photographer’s trademark.

Included in “Sites and Structures” are views, mostly uninhabited, of hogans, kivas, medicine and sweat lodges, burial grounds and ruined stone buildings--the traditional architecture of the Piegan, Zuni, Apache and other peoples.

The prints on display are not photographs per se but photogravures inked onto paper from steel-plated copper plates made--with several intermediary steps--from film negatives. They were originally part of the photogravure folios included in Curtis’ famous 20-volume ethnographic series “The North American Native American,” published intermittently from 1907-30.

Born in 1868, Curtis crisscrossed the United States repeatedly from 1905-30 in pursuit of his 20-volume dream.

Equipped with a camera, he was both artist and anthropologist, deeply concerned about the plight of Native Americans and the decline of their cultures. Wealthy philanthropist J. Pierpont Morgan partially funded “The North American Native American.” Curtis ruined his finances, health and marriage before finishing it.


Volume I of “The North American Native American” garnered wide public attention and critical acclaim, but by 1930, when Curtis published the final volume, his work and photographic style were considered passe.

He died largely forgotten in 1952.

Interest in his work revived in the late ‘60s. With it came controversy. Critics have decried Curtis because he staged many portraits, insisting his subjects don ceremonial costumes they rarely wore or were not authentic or not their own.

Oddly for someone concerned with details and documentation, Curtis preferred the soft-focus look favored by members of the Pictorialist movement. The Pictorialists were early 20th century photographers who tried to emulate the hand-worked look of paintings so their prints would be accepted as art instead of craft.

This softness gives Curtis’ images a misty, sometimes mystical feel.

“ ‘Casa Grande Ruin,’ made in 1907, it’s a simple little picture but it may be my favorite one,” Solomon said. “I was fascinated by the sense of erosion in it. There’s a whole play of what once was there and the impermanence of things.”

The Solomons, who live in Monarch Beach, chose to collect photography because “it best describes the world in which we are living, as opposed to painting or sculpture that seem to describe a pre-media age,” Dan Solomon said. “Plus, generally speaking, it costs less to collect fine photographs than fine paintings.”


Curtis’ architectural photogravures sell for about $100 to $1,000, and his portraits command about $10,000 to $25,000, Solomon said.


The Solomons also collect 19th century photographs, including daguerreotypes, the work of Eadweard Muybridge and contemporary work by Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Madoka Takagi, among others.

Still, Curtis has a special pull.

Said Solomon: “Curtis is a giant in his own right, although Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand and Edward Weston in the first half of the 20th century and Robert Adams, Diane Arbus and Robert Frank in the second half were more gigantic from an aesthetic point of view.

“But Curtis remains a significant figure in any history of photography or Native American history. His appeal to a popular audience is great, and his output was prodigious too.”


“Edward S. Curtis: Sites and Structures,” Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Tuesdays-Sundays,

11 a.m.-5 p.m. $5 to $4; children 15 and younger admitted free. (949) 759-1122. Through April 1.