What you see: Red Cloud, Oglala, a platinum print by Edward Curtis, who took the photograph in 1905. Offered at Swann Auction Galleries in April 2017, it sold for $32,500 against an estimate of $6,000 to $9,000. It set an auction record for this particular Red Cloud image by Curtis.
Who was Edward S. Curtis? He was an American photographer who spent much of his life recording the cultures and people of Native American tribal communities for a sprawling multi-year project. Dubbed The North American Indian and backed by financier J.P. Morgan, it was designed to comprise 20 volumes and 1,500 photographs. He ultimately produced 222 complete sets of a planned 500. Curtis died in 1952 at the age of 84.
Who was Red Cloud? He was one of the finest, most skilled leaders that the Oglala Lakota community ever had. He made war on American forces between 1866 and 1868, killing 81 in the largest battle of what came to be called Red Cloud’s War. After signing the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, his people moved to a reservation. Red Cloud sat for more than 100 photographs during his life. He died in 1909 at the age of 86 or 87.
This is an amazing portrait. It looks like it could have been shot last week. “I think that’s where Edward Curtis’s sensibility comes into play,” says Daile Kaplan, director of the photographs and photo books department at Swann. “You feel the gravitas. It’s a poignant image of Red Cloud, taken later on life. These figures [Red Cloud and his Native American peers] were leaders, were warriors. The severity of the situation of Native American people was written on their faces.”
Did Curtis develop and finish this platinum print on his own, without assistants? “Exactly, and he’s a consummate technician,” she says. “Not only does he pre-visualize and compose in rather magisterial ways, because of his familiarity in the dark room, he was exceptional in crafting prints.”
The humanity of Red Cloud really comes through. “I think the size of the image and the august nature of the figure–you can’t walk away from it,” she says. “This was part of Curtis’s genius. It was his passion to engage with his subjects. That’s why they [his photographs] are so powerful today.”
Did treating his subjects as human beings make Curtis’s photographs controversial in his time? “They were very controversial,” Kaplan says. “There was not a lot of empathy for native people. There was a tremendous fear of anyone who is other, not unlike today.”
How often does this Red Cloud image comes up at auction? “This is the first one that’s been at auction not only at Swann, but in a while,” she says. “Its rarity, its condition, and the context of its provenance all figured prominently in why it performed so well.”
Were you surprised by how well it did? “Yes, we were very pleasantly surprised. Clearly, this image is one for which there was a tremendous response, and a tremendous response across the board from dealers, collectors, and curators. In the sale, we offered a platinum print of Geronimo, estimated at $20,000 to $30,000, and at a similar size. It sold for $22,000. This image surpassed the image of Geronimo. It illustrates that a figure like Red Cloud is on a par with other names of Native American leadership.”
Why did the Red Cloud image perform so strongly? “I think that with a platinum print of this size, the notion is that they are rarer than many people anticipate, and that this material is not going to become available again,” she says. “It’s odd that the platinum Geronimo didn’t perform at the same level, but the image of Red Cloud is clearly rarer.”
What else makes this Red Cloud image so powerful? “When an artist has an opportunity to stand before someone who is august, you have to step into their power,” she says. “The image of Red Cloud almost commemorates the meeting of two great minds, and two great visions.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.