Yumqas of the Mamalelekala, 1915

Yumqas of the Mamalelekala, part of the Kwakwaka'wakw peoples that inhabits the Pacific Northwest and present day British Columbia around Vancouver. Following the devastating effects of disease introduced by European settlers around Vancouver that reduced the Kwakwaka'wakw population by three quarters by 1915, when this portrait was taken by Edward Curtis, the population numbered around 2000 people. Notably, for a people who traded wool blankets as a form of currency, Yumqas wears a mantle made of redcedar bark, which was created by peeling long strips from the trees, with the flexible inner layer of the bark shredded. The resulting felted strips could then be plaited, sewn or woven into fabrics.

Curtis utilised photogravure, a photomechanical process where a copper plate is coated with light sensitive gelatine tissue exposed to a film positive. The resulting ‘intaglio’ print could then be reproduced with the continuous tonal range of a photograph. A piece of paper would be applied to the top of the inked copper intaglio, then rolled over to create the photographic print. The continuous tone was so good for its time it was used for original fine art prints and photo-reproductions of paintings. Now, the technique is used for banknotes and passports. The Mamalelekala may have been fascinated by Curtis’ technique, as the Kwakwaka'wakw highly valued copper as part of their economy.

Color Reconstruction Jordan Lloyd
Words Jordan Lloyd

Original Photograph by Edward S. Curtis
Format Photogravure, 192 x 140 mm
Date 1915
Location Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Source University of Southern California Libraries / Museum of Photographic Arts, Gift of Jo and Howard Weiner