Veteran investor and philanthropist Bill Miller has given an archive of rare photographic plates by Edward S. Curtis to the University of Pennsylvania Libraries in Philadelphia.
The Maryland-based investor’s gift includes 151 glass plates produced by Curtis, one of the most prolific photographers active in the first half of the 20th century. The images derive from Curtis’ three-decade long stint photographing more than eighty Native American tribes across the U.S.
The original glass plates were used to reproduce many of the images from Curtis’ twenty-volume project, “The North American Indian” (1907-1930), which is known for its romantic styling of Indigenous subjects. In the series, Curtis often removed the trappings of modern life like alarm clocks from his final prints and posed subjects donning only traditional clothing—a practice that many historians have deemed problematic.
“It is an honor to receive this gift, which significantly expands our collections in the history of photography,” said Constantia Constantinou, H. Carton Rogers III Vice Provost and Director of Libraries. The collection, which is valued at $4.2 million, is the largest group of photographic plates produced by Curtis that remain intact. The majority of negatives that Curtis produced during this lifetime—around 40,000—were destroyed. Some of the plates given to Penn contain details that have long been lost in printed versions.
The plates were used by Curtis as part of a photogravure process involving glass negatives and copperplate etching process. Brooklyn antiquarian Stephen Loewnthiel, who helped steer Miller’s gift to Penn and serves on the library’s board of advisors, described it as a “timing consuming and cumbersome process,” that “requires great artistic ability,” to execute.
Miller, a rare books and documents collector, is better known for losing his fortune during the financial crisis of 2008 and then making an unexpected comeback with his namesake mutual fund, Miller Value Partners.
Member of the university’s staff say the gift will help further research efforts on Indigenous culture. “Edward S. Curtis’s photographs raise complex issues of representation of Native American peoples in both the past and the present” said Christopher Woods, Williams Director of the Penn Museum. “Through interdisciplinary collaboration at the University and beyond, we can create meaningful opportunities to expand teaching and research in conversation with today’s living Native American photographers, scholars, artists, students, and community members.”