Vintage View: 1920s Pacific Northwest In Color
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Rich Remsberg
Saturday, February 4, 2012 at 9:00 AM
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Back in the day, the closest thing to Photoshop involved paint and a negative. These colorful lantern slides show Washington State like you've never seen it.

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.

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.

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. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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