Developing the Pacific Northwest: The Life and Work of Asahel Curtis

By Rose, Taylor E. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Developing the Pacific Northwest: The Life and Work of Asahel Curtis


Rose, Taylor E., Oregon Historical Quarterly


DEVELOPING THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST: THE LIFE AND WORK OF ASAHEL CURTIS

by William H. Wilson

Washington State University Press, Pullman, 2015. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. 334 pages. $29.95 paper.

Photographer, activist, and all-around developer of the Pacific Northwest, Asahel Curtis lived a romantic life. William H. Wilson's biography of the man is an appropriately romantic book. It is also a fine piece of scholarship and a great read. The story begins with Curtis's migration from Minnesota to Seattle in 1888 and follows his sojourn to the Yukon gold country in 1897. Wilson then dives into Curtis's career as a photographer before dwelling on his most momentous political endeavors: involvement in the good roads movement, the foundational role he played in promoting Mount Rainier, and his vehement opposition to the creation of Olympic National Park. Wilson also includes two chapters on his later life.

Curtis saw his photography as both a way to make a living and a tool to advocate for the natural and scenic resource causes he believed in. Despite the artistic merit and resonance of Curtis's photographs nearly a century later, Wilson characterizes his relationship with photography as one of business rather than art. The author does well to include photos as illustrations of the different projects in which Curtis was involved, but he does less to weave together the photographer's narrative with others. To be sure, Wilson argues in the introduction that "Curtis compartmentalized his life to an extraordinary degree," and for the most part his framework for narrating that life holds up, but on a few occasions the story seems disjointed as we lose sight of the only thing that "embraced all of his disparate pursuits"--that is, photography (p. …

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