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A Discussion of Orotones

In February of 2012, the Indianapolis Museum of Art mounted a works on paper exhibition created by IMA Prints, Drawings & Photographs Curator Marty Krause entitled “Looking West.” This exhibition featured collection prints, drawings, photographs and watercolors by artists of the 19th & 20th centuries who were captivated by the scenery and culture of the American West. Two of the photographs chosen for this exhibition were taken out of storage for the first time since their acquisition in 1988. They were listed in the museum’s database as works by Edward Sheriff Curtis and identified as “orotones.”

Edward Sheriff Curtis, “Three Chiefs Piegan,” 1900. Gift of Mrs. Charles E. Rogers. 1988.65

It is one of my responsibilities to inspect every artwork prior to display in our galleries to make sure that there are no compelling condition problems that would require treatment before the installation. The orotones were stored with the oil paintings, hanging high on massive wire mesh storage racks suspended from the ceiling. I had to climb a ladder to reach them, and at the top I leaned forward to remove the archival foamboard light shields that were fitted around their frames to protect them from unnecessary light exposure. What I uncovered were two gleaming images, casting a quiet golden glow that seemed slightly miraculous given the cold illumination provided by the overhead fluorescent lights. The orotones shone as if lit by internal church candles, and I was immediately intrigued by the beauty and presence achieved by this esoteric photographic process.

Edward Sheriff Curtis, "The Vanishing Race," 1904. Gift of Mrs. Charles E. Rogers. 1988.66.

Edward Sheriff Curtis, “The Vanishing Race,” 1904. Gift of Mrs. Charles E. Rogers. 1988.66.

Edward Sheriff Curtis was both prominent and prolific in the history of orotone images. His most famous endeavor involved amassing a documentary record of Native American cultures through staged scenes and portraiture, and the use of this particular technique enhanced the romantic appeal of this body of work. The IMA photographs are entitled Three Chiefs, Piegan and The Vanishing Race. They were in identical frames of gilded wood with decorative corner elements, and I came to learn that these were a common type of frame associated with Curtis’s work, personally selected to properly enhance and dignify his images.

Detail: lower left corner of the frame belonging to “Three Chiefs Piegan.”

What are orotones? This turned out to be a much more complicated question than anticipated. Other names for them include Goldtones and Curt-tones, the latter term coined by Curtis himself. The Latin word for gold is aurum, approximated by the prefix ‘oro’ which seems an obvious reference to the golden appearance of the images. This has lead to the misunderstanding that all orotones utilize actual metallic gold within the process. In truth, Curtis’s orotones were created by projecting a photographic negative onto a glass plate that had been pre-coated with a silver-gelatin emulsion, thereby creating a ‘positive’ image. The image was developed and fixed, and the emulsion was then coated with a layer of ‘bronzing powders mixed with banana oil’ to produce a backing color that enabled the highlights and shadows to be discernible, thus rendering the image readable. The ‘bronzing powders’ (metallic powders in a liquid carrier) were probably variable mixtures, but in Curtis’s work, they have been found to contain copper and zinc (note: bronze is technically defined as an alloy of copper and tin; copper and zinc are the components of brass). This metal combination was confirmed at the IMA through a brief scan using a handheld X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. The ‘banana oil’ is amyl acetate in acetone and benzene, with the addition of a small amount of proxylin, which is a cellulose nitrate lacquer. The amyl acetate solvent is produced synthetically, but it has the distinct smell and taste of bananas, which explains the persistent use of the term ‘banana oil.’ It takes a great deal of skill to lay this coating over the emulsion flawlessly, which may help to explain the relative rarity of this process and Curtis’ justifiable pride in his mastery of the technique. He is even thought to have modified the materials to gain the precise aesthetic that he wanted, although this speculation has not been well documented.

Now that we understood what orotones were, we knew that we needed to re-examine our stewardship practices surrounding them to make sure that we were giving them the care they needed in order to survive into the distant future. It is very fortunate that we have the advice of visiting photograph conservator Paul Messier (which I wrote about here), contracted by the IMA for a condition survey of all collection photographs through a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The following information is excerpted from Paul’s survey of The Three Chiefs, Piegan:

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Filed under: Conservation, Photography, The Collection, Uncategorized


Celebrating Sixties Fashion

What unspoken messages do First Ladies send with fashion? And how did the unforgettable Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy break the mold to present her husband’s candidacy and presidency as progressive and modern?

On September 13, 2012 the IMA’s Fashion Arts Society hosted design historian Sandy McLendon, former contributor and senior editor at Modernism Magazine, for a lecture on the influential “Jackie Look.” McLendon took attendees through a visual tour of Jackie’s strategic choices: hiring Hollywood costume designer Oleg Cassini; embracing the slim sheath dress and fuss-free pillbox hat; and selecting—down to the detail—trim, elegant gowns suitable for superpower diplomacy.

FAS members turned out in their fabulous finery for the event, wearing hats, gloves and fur to celebrate mod sixties fashion.

Even if you couldn’t make it to the event, you can still watch it on ArtBabble or YouTube. I won’t judge you if you break out your pillbox hat for viewing, either.

Filed under: New Media, Public Programs, Textile & Fashion, The Toby, Uncategorized


“In Space No One Can Hear You Scream.”

Our guest blogger today is Christopher Lloyd, co-founder of

Sometimes great movies can spring forth from a well of tainted motives.

Alien is a watershed, a lodestone, often called one of the most influential (and copied) films of the last half-century. What it is not, though, is the act of pure cinematic creation that most people consider it to be.

Director Ridley Scott, making just his second feature film, planned to do a period costume drama, perhaps an adaptation of Tristan and Isolde. Then he saw Star Wars and realized that space adventures would be the new big thing. He quickly jumped aboard pop culture’s sci-fi bandwagon.

The other movie genre that was going gangbusters in 1979 was horror films, particularly the slasher variety in which young, comely females are stalked by a seemingly unkillable killer whose gruesome, thrusting slayings have a not-terribly-subtle undertone of sexual penetration.

Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon simply took the two hottest things going in Hollywood and melded them together. (O’Bannon would go on to underscore his horror movie bona fides by penning the zombie flicks Dead & Buried, The Return of the Living Dead and Lifeforce over the next six years.)

As if to leave no doubt, the tagline for the movie’s poster (above) seemed tailor-made to appeal to Star Wars fans who were old enough to buy tickets to an R-rated horror flick.

None of this, however, detracts from the boldness and artistry of what was created.

If Alien is just a slasher film in space, then it’s one executed with flawless craftsmanship. In Scott’s hands, the commercial space barge Nostromo becomes a vast, haunted landscape filled with inky pools of shadow and dilapidated equipment. Despite a lack of character development, each of the actors managed to create a distinct, memorable presence.

Sigourney Weaver, practically a movie novice, calmly embodied the role of the level-headed warrant officer Ripley (we didn’t even learn her first name until the 1986 sequel). Ripley was also one of the first action-movie female leads … though she’s something of a stealth protagonist. Up until the point where Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) perishes at the talons of the alien, most audiences members assumed he was the main guy.

And how can we fail to mention the unforgettable alien — or should we say, trio of aliens: the insectoid “facehugger,” the phallic “chestburster” and the full-grown creature, which (to quote myself) “is so black and spider-like, it seems less like an organism than null space brought to life.”

Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, who created the alien designs, is as much responsible for the success of the Alien franchise as anyone. Though it must be pointed out that the series became more and more mercenary — finally pairing up with the Predator flicks for a profit-pursuing crossover.

And of course, this summer has brought us Prometheus, Scott’s breathlessly awaited prequel to Alien, which has left audiences as baffled as the original left them terrified. (My own take: narratively, Prometheus is a mess, but still a worthy cinematic experience.)

Whatever the highs and lows of its offspring, Alien was truly the mother of invention — or, at least, inspired amalgamation.

Come see Alien at this evening’s screening of Summer Nights.

Filed under: Uncategorized


Back in the Saddle Again: Project IMA

Project IMA: Fashion Unbound, 2010. Winner: Jeremy B. Hunt.

The first IMA organized fashion show, Project IMA, debuted in 2008 on an idea and a shoestring. The idea was simple: engage our community through fashion in order to promote the traveling exhibition, Breaking the Mode: Contemporary Fashion from the Permanent Collection, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It seemed therefore fitting to draw from the community for participants. Having only moved to Indianapolis six months prior, I scoured the web and attended multiple fashion events to quickly discover, much to my delight, a strong assembly of designers, wearable artists and stylists within the city. As a result, we asked 16 designers to participate in the fashion show. They had four months to visit the exhibition, study the accompanying catalogue and devise a plan for one to two ensembles that “featured outrageous, beautiful, irreverent and glamorous designs.”

Not only were the pieces created interesting, varied, and thought-provoking, but the public’s response was overwhelming. So many people attended the show we had to schedule an impromptu second show for all those who couldn’t make it in the first round. There are even rumors that the amount of traffic flowing into the parking lot actually (temporarily) shut down 38th Street. Not bad, eh?

Project IMA: Fashion Unbound, 2010. Designs by Francis Stallings

So, in 2010, we decided to try it again. Only this time, we used our own exhibition, Body Unbound: Contemporary Couture from the IMA’s Permanent Collection, as the stimulus and opened the call for entries internationally. The response was exuberant.  We had over 50 people submit proposals for inclusion. Of those 50, we selected 40 participants who met the guidelines and, just like that, Project IMA: Fashion Unbound was in full swing.  Two back-to-back shows (having learned from experience) took place in The Toby to enthusiastic crowds. The concepts employed and the quality designs, almost 80 in total, were impressive. There were pieces made from paper, plastic bags and rubber bands while others, confronted, amused and referenced history. After much deliberation, the judges selected a piece by Jeremy B. Hunt as the best of show and awarded him the Elizabeth Kraft-Meek fashion design award. Afterwards, guests, designers, models and crew attended the official Behind the Seams after party, hosted by the newly formed affiliate group, FAS. Here audience members viewed garments up close, lined up for photos by Got Shot, and listened to the music of local pop sweethearts, Beta Male.  All in all, the event was a success.

So, here we go, again…

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Filed under: Public Programs, Textile & Fashion, The Toby, Uncategorized


Music for Snapshot

Our guest blogger today is concert pianist Sylvia Maiuri.

I’ve been playing the piano at the IMA for over 30 years in several different capacities. I recently came across some old programs from several chamber music concerts in the 1980s and a solo recital I played there in 1982. Through the years, I’ve played for several openings, including an exhibition of work by Félix Vallotton (an artist currently featured in the exhibition Snapshot), and in the galleries. For 20 years I was the pianist for the Cameo Trio, which gave many concerts at the IMA and became Piano Trio in Residence there a few years before it was disbanded in 2003. In addition, I played the harpsichord for “Christmas at Lilly” for six years.

When Ellen Lee invited me to play for the exhibition Snapshot, she mentioned the name Misia Natanson. This was a great clue for me to follow when selecting music to play for this exhibition. While Misia – a pianist who hosted an artistic salon in Paris – was a muse to visual artists (she’s featured throughout the exhibition in works by Édouard Vuillard, among others), she served as inspiration for composers, as well. Misia’s piano teacher, Gabriel Fauré, introduced her to Maurice Ravel, who was a student of his at the time. Ravel later dedicated a composition, Le Cygne, to Misia and his work Sonatine is dedicated to Misia’s brother and his wife. Also present was Claude Debussy, whose works Misia loved. Ravel and Debussy were friends of Erik Satie, who later dedicated his ballet, Parade, to Misia. I selected music by these composers to play at the opening event and in the galleries, and it was a treat for me to add to the ambience of this wonderful exhibition.  If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating woman, a good resource is the publication Misia by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale.

For more information on performances inspired by Snapshot, visit the IMA’s events page.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Guest Bloggers, Uncategorized


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