Found In The Archives

Vintage View: 1920s Pacific Northwest In Color

When Johnson and Ellen Sheriff Curtis moved their family from Minnesota to Seattle in 1887, two of their teenage sons developed a burgeoning interest in photography.

Asahel Curtis and his camera at a roadhouse, on the White Pass or Skagway Trail, circa 1887

hide captionAsahel Curtis and his camera at a roadhouse, on the White Pass or Skagway Trail, circa 1887

University of Washington Libraries
A hand-colored lantern slide of Red Delicious apples

hide captionA hand-colored lantern slide of Red Delicious apples

Asahel Curtis/Washington State Archives

One of them, Edward Curtis, would go on to become famous for his photographs of Native Americans. But his brother, Asahel Curtis, who worked to less acclaim as a commercial photographer in Seattle, also left behind a remarkable body of work.

In a career that began in partnership with his brother, Asahel Curtis started his own studio in 1911, shooting the standard subjects for a commercial photographer of the day: fires, buildings, advertisements, visiting dignitaries and development of the city he worked in.

He also created a series of more than 200 especially beautiful and interesting images of the surrounding landscape, now in the collections at the Washington State Archives.

In the 1920s, he was commissioned by the Washington state Department of Conservation and Development to create a series of colorized lantern slides for public presentations, designed to promote tourism and immigration to the area. The resulting hand-colored slides show interesting moments of the region's agriculture, industry and recreation.

  • Mount St. Helens from Spirit Lake
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    Mount St. Helens from Spirit Lake
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Forest in Western Washington
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    Forest in Western Washington
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Sheep herd grazing
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    Sheep herd grazing
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Chelan Canyon
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    Chelan Canyon
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Irrigated wheat on the Kittitas Project near Ellensburg
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    Irrigated wheat on the Kittitas Project near Ellensburg
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Duroc hogs near Rosalia
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    Duroc hogs near Rosalia
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Blossom time in the Wenatchee Valley at sunrise
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    Blossom time in the Wenatchee Valley at sunrise
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Elephant Head Rock at the mouth of the Raft River
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    Elephant Head Rock at the mouth of the Raft River
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Lake Keechelus
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    Lake Keechelus
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Summit of Mount Spokane shows Indian basket grass
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    Summit of Mount Spokane shows Indian basket grass
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Cattle herd at Grand Coulee
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    Cattle herd at Grand Coulee
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Forest ranger cabin in the Olympic National Forest
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    Forest ranger cabin in the Olympic National Forest
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Hay-stacking in Grandview
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    Hay-stacking in Grandview
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Stacking alfalfa hay near Grandview
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    Stacking alfalfa hay near Grandview
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Lake Quinault from the Forest Service campground
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    Lake Quinault from the Forest Service campground
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Rhododendrons in the forest, car driving through
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    Rhododendrons in the forest, car driving through
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives
  • Spokane businessmen on the Mount Spokane Road
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    Spokane businessmen on the Mount Spokane Road
    Asahel Curtis, circa 1908-1939/Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division/Washington State Archives

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This type of coloring that predates Kodachrome — and what we tend to think of as more realistic color — strikes modern eyes not so much for the dimensional realism it was striving for but for its abstraction. As with black-and-white photography, the distance from "real" color in these scenes is powerful because our minds have to make a certain leap.

Sometimes the hand-coloring reaches a masterful level of accuracy, but just as often the images are beautiful because they create a world with its own integrity, either by their awkwardness or because the color they offer is better than what we experience in the real world.

These images are from a collection at the Washington State Archives Conservation Department, Planning and Development Division. More of Curtis' work can be seen in the collection at the University of Washington Special Collections and the Washington State Historical Society.


Found in the Archives, a Picture Show miniseries, features archival films and found images selected by researcher Rich Remsberg.

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