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‘Asahel’ documents the race to preserve photos of NW history

SEATTLE—The race to preserve 60,000 priceless and fragile photographs capturing the diversity of Pacific Northwest life during the last two centuries is the subject of the latest documentary from the award-winning storytelling team at Cascade PBS.

Most of the images—made by photographer Asahel Curtis from the 1890s to 1940s—have remained in boxes and unseen by all but a handful of people for the past 80 years. Asahel: The Curtis Collection documents the Washington State Historical Society’s ongoing effort to digitize the massive collection for free public use. The documentary is available to stream now via the Cascade PBS app and at CascadePBS.org.

“Every day is an adventure as we digitize images,” said Margaret Wetherbee, head of collections at the Washington State Historical Society. “What will we find? Steam engines, historical fashion, or signs for businesses long forgotten? These moments provide a glimpse into the lives of Washington's past residents.”

But the images are fragile, captured on glass plates or nitrate negatives. Because they’re susceptible to combustion, the originals are at risk and must be stored in climate-controlled vaults. Each image is now being scanned in a careful and time-consuming process to ensure the collection survives.

During his career, Curtis often made images of everyday life in the Northwest: people at work in barbershops and flower shops, on the waterfront, in logging camps. He also produced photographs of the region’s natural wonders, including ice caves, mountain peaks and coulees.

“The Asahel Curtis photographic collection is a gold mine of history and connection for the people of the Pacific Northwest and beyond,” said co-producer, narrator and historian Knute Berger, host of Cascade PBS’ “Mossback’s Northwest.” “Creating public access to the full collection, and the ensuing public engagement with images of our past, will likely change—and will certainly enrich—our view of the region and its people.”

Asahel (pronounced “AY-shul”) Curtis is the brother of the even more famous photographer Edward Curtis, whose life’s work aimed, incorrectly, to portray Native Americans as people on the verge of extinction. While Edward Curtis’ portfolio is appreciated in some cases for its historical value, today it’s also criticized for distorted perspective and damaging impact.

The Curtis brothers parted ways early in their careers and took different tacks with the subjects of their work. 

Asahel Curtis died in 1941. The Historical Society purchased his entire collection with the goal of making it widely available.

“Connecting to our past is really about empathy and being able to see people in the past as real people, and to empathize with what they experienced,” Jennifer Kilmer, director of the Washington State Historical Society, says in Asahel. “And through that empathy, to gain understanding into our own experience.”