Sealaska Heritage

NEWS_Pair donates rare copper plates made by Edward Curtis to SHI

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Plates feature portraits of Alaska Native people, culture from the early 1900s

Dec. 21, 2021

(Plate Images) (About Photogravure Plates)

Two entrepreneurs have donated to Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) eight old and rare copper plates showing portraits of Native Alaskans, a tomb, an old house and carvings photographed in the early 1900s.

The plates were made by Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952), an American photographer and ethnologist whose work focused on the American West and on Native American people. He used a technology called “photogravure” which preceeded the use of film.

Donors Steven Kern and Kenneth Zerbe, who purchased the photogravure plates in 1981 from the Classic Gravure Company, wanted SHI to have part of the Alaska portion of their collection, Kern said.

“We are thrilled and grateful to have these one-of-a-kind copper plates in our ethnographic collection. We are astounded by the generosity of the donors and glad we will have these for future generations to study,” said SHI President Rosita Worl.

The images were featured in Curtis’ life work The North American Indian — The Vanishing Race, a massive nearly 40-year project financed by JP Morgan and sponsored by President Theodore Roosevelt. The endeavor required Curtis to trek through the American West with wagons and cameras to document "The Vanishing Race" of Native American Tribes, according to The Curtis Gallery.

The work is published in twenty volumes of narrative text and ‘small’ photogravure images.  Four additional volumes of ‘large’ photogravure images accompany these twenty volumes. The first volume of the twenty volumes was published in 1907, and the final volume of the twenty volumes was published in 1930, according to the gallery.

The negatives were transferred to plates by way of the photogragvure process for inclusion in the series and a limited number of them made the final cut.

“Curtis took thousands of photographs but not all were chosen for inclusion in The North American Indian series,” said Kern.

The plates donated to SHI are titled A Haida Chief's Tomb at Yan (1915), A Haida of Massett (1915), A Haida of Kung (1915), Haida Slate Carvings (1915), Old Stone House-Diomede Island (1928), A Kotzebue Man (1928), Charlie Wood-Kobuk (1928) and Kobuk Costume (1928)

About Photogravure Plates

A photogravure plate is a copper plate upon which a photographic image has been etched.

The photogravure process, which dates to the 1850s, was the primary photographic “technology” prior to film.  The process is rarely used today due its time-consuming complexity and, generally, the resulting photogravure print being limited to one color, usually sepia.

Thus, the photogravure plate, today, is an example of photographic history.  For example, the Curtis photogravure plates were created between 1900 and 1930.

And, the actual printing from the photogravure plate is almost a lost art. (Source: The Curtis Gallery)

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

CONTACT: Kathy Dye, SHI Media Specialist, 907.321.4636,

Caption: “A Haida of Massett” – one of eight copper plates donated to SHI by Steven Kern and Kenneth Zerbe. News outlets are welcome to use this photo for coverage of this story. For a higher resolution image, contact