Egret and crab

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Oregon Native Woman with child Orotone

One of the more interesting facets of my job is the research and detective work.  There are many times when you don't really know what you have and also times that you figure out that either the popular wisdom is wrong or that you will never get a final answer to your question.

The jury is still out on this one. 

My friend Bill found this striking photograph at the flea market and asked me if I wanted to split it with him and sell it. 

He knows that I like this sort of thing.

In 1872 Wild Bill Hickock staged a buffalo hunt at Niagara Falls.

29 years later, in 1901, Colonel Fred Cummins launched a Pan American Expo lollapalooza that featured Calamity Jane and the Sioux leader Red Cloud.

Americans started collecting all things Indian with a vengeance, including photos, feathers, pots, baskets and blankets. It never stopped.

Attracted by the beauty and romantic aura of Indian baskets, the United States was swept up in a veritable “basket craze” around 1890. Smithsonian curator Otis Mason commented that the fad “almost amounts to a disease,” a malady exhibiting a multitude of symptoms (1904:187). Decorating homes with Indian baskets and other Indian “curios” came into vogue; it became fash­ionable to “have a number of Indian baskets strewn around the parlor” (Frye 1977:58) supplying “a distinct charm that can be had from nothing else” (Lester 1906:68).

Collecting these Indian baskets became a popu­lar pastime, “people of wealth vying with one another in owning them” (Mason 1904:ix). “Probably no other one hobby has been ridden so furiously,” proclaimed an 1895 article, and there is “perhaps none which faster `runs into money’ (Anonymous 1895:85). A collector of Indian baskets, often referred to at the time as a “basket crank,” purchased baskets directly from Native people, obtained them secondhand from dealers and curio stores, or traded pieces with other enthusiasts.

And I jumped right down the same rabbit hole!

As you can see, the beautiful photograph is of a young native woman with a papoose on her back, swaddled in a star adorned cloth, possibly an American flag.

It was in original condition and the backing paper was still intact and undisturbed. That is a good thing as  you don't want things to be monkeyed with.

The photograph was in really nice shape. It is called a gold tone or orotone photograph due to its golden color and brilliant metallic sheen.

Goldtones were first invented around 1880. A gelatin positive is affixed to a glass plate. 

The most famous exponent of the medium was Edward Curtis up in Seattle. He called them Curt-tones.

Curtis coated the back of the plate with gold and bronze metallic powder, in a banana oil binder. 

His photographs were widely reproduced but his goldtones can sell for a lot of money.

He also used a very similar "bat wing" style frame. But I searched the database and could not find a record of this particular image.

And it lacked his characteristic signature in the right corner.

This was the start of my hunt. The first thing I did was send a picture to my good friend Barry Friedman who has written two books on trade blankets. Did he recognize the blanket and would it provide any clues as to the date of the photograph?

Barry collects old photos of natives with blankets and he was intrigued. He had never seen this one. But he also told me something interesting, it was not a commercial trade blanket like a Pendleton or Capps, they were never fringed like this. 

He thought it might have been a rio grande banket and suggested I ask Mark Winter, a mutual friend and major expert on native weavings of all kinds. 

I would do that but went another direction first, contacting Bob Zinner in Palm Springs. 

Bob has been selling Curtis goldtones for a long time. He told me that he did not know the author but that he had seen it once many years ago and said he would ask Bob Kapoun at Rainbow Man in Santa Fe, another respected expert in the field.

Bob got back to him and told Zinner that it was done by a man named Gibbs, an Oregon photographer and that it was rare. At the same time I had contacted both Cardozo and the Curtis Legacy Foundation and neither of them had any ideas either but the man from the foundation, who I believe is a Curtis relative, said that he would ask around.

Mark Winter told me that the blanket was probably one of the ones commissioned and sold by an early trader in Mesilla, New Mexico named Frances Lester. Mesilla is one of my favorite places in New Mexico, near my childhood home in Las Cruces.

I'm not sure who did his weaving but do plan on researching it. Lester was an Englishman who also had a passion for old roses.

He put out a catalogue like traders Cotton and J.B. Moore.

I took the photograph to my framer and we took it out of frame to look for identifying marks, hoping to find a clue that would help me with my detective work.

There was nothing.

But I did see that the back of the plate was coated with this beautiful blue pigment or ground.

Perhaps that is why this goldtone has such a singular and iconoclastic sheen, even prettier than a Curtis.

I have sold goldtones for over thirty years and I have never seen one painted blue on the back.

I needed to file this factoid to my memory banks.

Well, now I knew positively because of the verso bluing that it was not a Curtis, had a loose suggestion that it might be by a guy named Gibbs and also knew that the blanket was not machine made.

Not much else.

Benjamin Gifford
I decided to search the Oregon archives. Nothing came up for a Gibbs, but there was a Benjamin Gifford who did very similar work. Maybe Zinner misunderstood Kapoun and it was a Gifford?

I wrote this letter:

Oregon State University Special Collections and Archives

A friend of mine recently found this remarkable 10 x 8" goldtone. I took it out of frame and original backing this morning and it bears no signature or identifying marks.  Just a gorgeous image and subject, in great condition and with great reflective qualities.
A friend who has long sold Curtis, Bob Zinner, said he had seen it once long ago. He consulted an expert for me, who said it was a Gibbs (sic), I believe that he meant that it is the work of Gifford.
Are you familiar with this particular image?  Is it in your archives? It looks very much like some of the work that is in your collection.

My friend Barry Friedman wrote two books on trade blankets and believes that it dates from around the turn of the century by evidence of the Pendleton blanket.

Can you provide me with any more information? I believe that you have another orotone in your archives. Does it have the same original blueing verso?

Thank you so much for any information that you might be able to provide.


Robert Sommers
Blue Heron Gallery
Fallbrook, CA 

They wrote me back a nice letter and came back with nothing. Suggested that I write the University of Oregon. Which I did.

Rachel Lilley at Oregon State suggested that I contact you and see if you are familiar with this image. I thought that it might be the work of Benjamin Gifford. She asked her peers and is not familiar with it, saw a familiar similar Giffords in her collection but also suggested I also look into the work of Lee Moorhouse. I sent pics to both the Curtis Foundation and Cardozo and they have never seen the blue ground verso before. I think this will be key on my attributing the orotone.

They were also flummoxed. I looked though all of the Moorehouse and Gifford work in the various archives, no match. Also checked the Oregon Historical Archives.

About this time I got a letter back from John Graybill at the Curtis Foundation who said that Rainbow Man had positively attributed it to Gibbs. He sent me this.

This is a slightly larger image from Kapoun's collection.

Identifies the artist as Philip Gibbs and the native woman as being from the Oregon tribe, circa 1920's.

I merely had to punch in the name and plug it into the internet and found that the image had sold at Skinners eight years ago.

Sold for pretty good money.

And I found an additional goldtone by an artist by the same name that failed to sell last year on Live Auctioneers.

One of the Oregon archives I talked with suggested that I contact a Museum Photograph restorer and conservator in San Francisco, Gawain Weaver, and see if the blue back gave him any clues as to the author of my photograph.

I did so. He had never seen the method before.

I found a man in Seattle, Julian, who advertises for Goldtones. I called him and coincidentally, he illustrates this very image on his site.

He was very kind and open. He said that one of the photographs was signed Phillip Gibbs.

So I guess that puts it to rest.

But does it?

How does a man this good leave absolutely no historical record?

I called Richard Lampert, who made his bones selling Curtis. He had seen this shot once before but it was a long time ago. No clue. I could have called Flury but never did. Asked Michael Caden, no idea.

I saw Bob Kapoun in Las Vegas and we discussed the piece. And it turns out that his shot is signed Gibbs, not Phillip Gibbs.

So I am going to put my Sherlock hat on and make a stab at something that may be entirely off base when the final analysis is in. I am going to say that there is no Phillip Gibbs. That the work is actually the artistry of an Oregon man I found records on in the Historical Museum, John Gibbs.

A resident of Oakland, Oregon, near Redford.

Who happens to be the only Gibbs photographer I could find in the entire Northwest.

A little early but perhaps he continued to work in the field and close enough.

Now I could be entirely offbase, of course. 

And I love to stand corrected.

But I have seen people work off of incomplete assumptions before and be wrong.

I will wait for empirical evidence.

If I actually see the inscription Phillip Gibbs I will go back to the drawing board.

But the beauty of the World Wide Web is that somebody out there might be able to fill in the dots and help me finish the puzzle someday.

Here's to you!


Blue Heron said...

VERY cool bit o' research on the foto my friend. Are you a tad OC(D) ??? Watcha gonna do with it ?

btw, "Egret & Ibis"...sounds like a sitcom...or a movie


Blue Heron said...

never thought of that...just thorough. (I hope)

Lena said...

Great story. Love your commitment to the search! Beautiful photograph.