Asahel Curtis: Photographer and Mountaineer

By: Maria Dikcis

Looking through the CB&Q advertising photo albums of various national parks, one photographer’s name that showed up numerous times was Asahel Curtis (1874-1941). Born in Minnesota, Curtis spent the majority of his 44-year career (during which he produced over 60,000 photographic images) capturing the Pacific Northwest. He did not come into his own as an artist, however, until after having an irremediable falling out with his famous photographer brother, Edward, who had taken credit for photographs of the Klondike gold rush that were, in fact, Asahel’s. Although Asahel’s photographic business projects included working with land developers, railroads, chambers of commerce, and advertising agencies, it was clear that his true passion lie in promoting and capturing the wilderness of natural landscapes. As a committed mountain climber himself, he was one of the founding members of “The Mountaineers,” a group devoted to climbing and exploring the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.

Below are two photographs that Curtis took of Rainier National Park in Washington State during the 1920s. One feature of Curtis’s work I have noticed is that when mountaineers appear in a photograph, we are both viewing the background scene through the lens of their vantage point, as well as witnessing them in the entirety of an environment from afar. This necessarily implies that Curtis needed to distance himself even further from the group in order to capture such a perspective, as if assigning himself not to the position of participant, but dissociated observer. Of course, given that we know Curtis was an avid mountaineer, it is all the more impressive that he was able to maintain such a dual role, developing his artistic skills and outlook and simultaneously facing the very trials that his photographic subjects faced (not to mention while carrying heavy equipment up and down mountains!).

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†. Frederick, Richard, and Jeanne Engerman. Asahel Curtis: Photographs of the Great Northwest. Tacoma, WA: Washington State Historical Society, 1983. Print.


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