THE UNIQUE GOLDTONES OF EDWARD S. CURTIS (1868 - 1952)
The Curt-Tone process (Curtis named the process after himself) more commonly referred to as a goldtone or orotone. The goldtone process was not created by Curtis, but he refined the technique to the extent that he eventually was considered the greatest master of the process. In simple terms a goldtone is a positive image on glass, while most photographic prints are a positive image on paper. The process Curtis used was to take a clear plate of optical glass and spread a liquid emulsion onto the surface of the plate. He then projected his negative onto the glass to create a positive image. The highlights and shadows, however, could not be seen unless there was some type of backing on the image. Mixing a combination of banana oils and bronzing powders to create a sepia or a goldtone effect. Curtis then spreads this mixture onto the dried emulsion. The final process involved baking the glass image so that all the chemicals bonded together. For those familiar with early photographic processes, there was a similar technique known as an ambrotype which was also an emulsion on glass; however, this process used black paint or cloth as a backing. The framing of the goldtone was the final element of the completed piece, which was also necessary in order to crate and ship the finished photographic work.
When viewed next to a paper print, the Curt-Tone/goldtone/orotone truly has a three-dimensional quality that transcends our normal perception of a photograph. When Edward Curtis was asked to describe the Curt-Tone process he said.
“The ordinary photographic print, however good, lacks depth and transparency, or more strictly speaking, translucency. We all know how beautiful the stones and pebbles in the limpid brook of the forest where the water absorbs the blue of the sky and the green of the foliage, yet when we take the same iridescent pebbles from the water and dry them they are dull and lifeless, so it is with the ordinary photographic print, but in the Curt-Tones all the transparency is retained and they are as full of life and sparkle as an opal.”
An early 1916 catalog, created by Curtis in an attempt to promote the Curt-Tones, illustrates 32 different images available in the following sizes:
Size 8 x 10, framed ...$10
Size 11 x 14, framed ...$15
Size 14 x 17, framed ...$30
Size 18 x 22, famed ...$50 (No Curt-Tones sold unframed)
Needless to say, one could not buy just a glass photographic image without some protection, therefore, the framing of the goldtones was an important and integral part of the image. As a customer, you could choose from four different frame styles. The most often purchased frame style was what is now referred to as a “bat-wing” frame (See figure 1). The gilded plastered corners showed a distinctive similarity to a spread-winged bat. Another frame style is now known as a “pie crust” frame (See Figure 2). This style has the gesso coming up and over the corner to give the appearance of a lip. Two other frames were also available but were not as popular as the two mentioned about. Figure 3 shows what is now described as a “ribbon” frame, and Figure 4 shows a frame referred to as a “ranch-style” frame.
Bob Kapoun Owner of The Rainbow Man, has bought and sold collections of Edward S. Curtis for over 40 years.
(Figure 1 "Chief Joseph - Nez Perce" by Edward S. Curtis, 1903 goldtone, bat-wing frame, Figure 2 "The Maid of Dreams" by Edward S. Curtis, 1909 goldtone, pie crust frame, Figure 3 "The Vanishing Race - Navaho" by Edward S. Curtis 1904 goldtone, goldtone ribbon frame, Figure 4 "The Three Chiefs - Piegan" by Edward S. Curtis, 1900 goldtone, goldtone ranch frame.)