How a lone man’s epic obsession led to one of America’s greatest cultural treasures: Prizewinning writer Timothy Egan tells the riveting, cinematic story behind the most famous photographs in Native American history — and the driven, brilliant man who made them.
Edward Curtis was charismatic, handsome, a passionate mountaineer, and a famous photographer, the Annie Leibovitz of his time. He moved in rarefied circles, a friend to presidents, vaudeville stars, leading thinkers. And he was thirty-two years old in 1900 when he gave it all up to pursue his Great Idea: to capture on film the continent’s original inhabitants before the old ways disappeared.
An Indiana Jones with a camera, Curtis spent the next three decades traveling from the Havasupai at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the Acoma on a high mesa in New Mexico to the Salish in the rugged Northwest rain forest, documenting the stories and rituals of more than eighty tribes. It took tremendous perseverance — ten years alone to persuade the Hopi to allow him into their Snake Dance ceremony. And the undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate. Eventually Curtis took more than 40,000 photographs, preserved 10,000 audio recordings, and is credited with making the first narrative documentary film. In the process, the charming rogue with the grade school education created the most definitive archive of the American Indian.
His most powerful backer was Theodore Roosevelt, and his patron was J. P. Morgan. Despite the friends in high places, he was always broke and often disparaged as an upstart in pursuit of an impossible dream. He completed his masterwork in 1930, when he published the last of the twenty volumes. A nation in the grips of the Depression ignored it. But today rare Curtis photogravures bring high prices at auction, and he is hailed as a visionary. In the end he fulfilled his promise: He made the Indians live forever.
About Timothy Egan
TIMOTHY EGAN is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and the author of six books, most recently The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and the Washington State Book Award. His previous books include The Worst Hard Time, which won a National Book Award and was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice. He is an online op-ed columnist for the New York Times, writing his “Opinionator” feature once a week. He is a third-generation Westerner and lives in Seattle.
This is an era of excessive subtitles—but not this one: “Epic” and “immortal” are words most fitting for Curtis, whose 20-volume The North American Indian, a project that consumed most of his productive adult life, is a work of astonishing beauty and almost incomprehensible devotion. Egan begins with the story of Angelina, Chief Seattle’s daughter, who in 1896 was living in abject poverty in the city named for her father. Curtis—who’d begun a Seattle photography shop—photographed her, became intrigued with the vanishing lives of America’s Indians and devoted the ensuing decades both to the photography of indigenous people all over North America and to the writing of texts that described their culture, languages, songs and religion. Curtis scrambled all his life for funding—J.P. Morgan and President Theodore Roosevelt were both supporters, though the former eventually took over the copyrights and sold everything to a collector during the Depression for $1,000—and spent most of his time away from home, a decision that cost him his marriage. His children, however, remained loyal, some later helping him with his project. As Egan shows, Curtis traveled nearly everywhere, living with the people he was studying, taking thousands of photographs. He nearly died on several occasions. Egan is careful to credit Curtis’ team, several of whom endured all that he did, though, gradually, he became the last man standing, and he reproduces a number of the gorgeous photographs. – Kirkus Reviews
Catching The ‘Shadow’ Of A Lost World
NPR Book Review – October 7, 2012 (Excerpt)
Photographer Edward Curtis started off his career at the tail end of the 19th century, making portraits of Seattle’s wealthiest citizens. But a preoccupation with Native Americans and a chance encounter on a mountaintop triggered an idea: Curtis decided to chronicle the experience of the vanishing tribes — all of them. It was an unbelievably ambitious project that would define Curtis, his work and his legacy.
Writer Tim Egan has just completed a new biography of Curtis. It’s called Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: the Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. He tells NPR’s Rachel Martin that Curtis discovered his first subject almost by accident. “He stumbles upon this, I call her ‘the last Indian of Seattle’; it was Princess Angeline; she was the daughter of Chief Seattle, after whom the city was named.” [Read the full article...]
“Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher : The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis” by Timothy Egan
The Washington Post Book Review – October 13, 2012 (Excerpt)
Sometime in early 1896, a young Seattle photographer named Edward Sherriff Curtis, already well known for his polished studio portraits of local civic leaders and business tycoons, decided to challenge himself and photograph a very different kind of subject. He chose “Princess Angeline,” aka Kick-is-om-lo, the sole surviving child of the great Duwamish-Suquamish chief for whom the city of Seattle was named. Roughly 80 years old at the time, Angeline lived in a dilapidated shack on the shores of Puget Sound, eking out a marginal existence by washing other people’s laundry for coins. She was regarded as “the last Indian of Seattle,” and Curtis thought she might make an unusual model for an afternoon’s sitting.
The resulting portraits went on to inspire one of the most ambitious and comprehensive documentary projects in the history of American photography. Impressed by Angeline’s dignity and quiet power, Curtis soon began seeking out members of other Northwestern tribes to record on film. And within a few years, he had conceived what Timothy Egan, in “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” calls his Big Idea”: “to photograph all intact Indian communities left in North America, to capture the essence of their lives before that essence disappeared.” [Read the full article...]
Review: Timothy Egan’s insightful ‘Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher’
The Chicago Tribune Book Review – October 18, 2012 (Excerpt)
Edward Curtis was given many names by the native peoples he encountered in his journeys across the North American continent.
The Sioux named him for a rock formation, “Pretty Butte.” The Hopi saw him sleep on an air mattress and called him “The Man Who Sleeps on His Breath.” And the Navajo gave him the moniker that was perhaps most apropos to his profession: “Shadow Catcher.”
Curtis trapped shadows and light in his box cameras. A century after he opened the shutter of his camera on wind-swept prairies and frozen islands, his enduring photographs define the dignity of the Native American experience — and the great crime of the cultural genocide inflicted upon them.
A man with limited education but limitless ambition, Curtis eventually completed one of the greatest book projects in American history. This unlikely career is the subject of Timothy Egan’s insightful and entertaining new book, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.” [Read the full article...]
Captured on Film - ‘Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,’ by Timothy Egan
The New York Times Book Review – October 26, 2012 (Excerpt)
Edward Curtis deserves to be remembered as the American artist who racked up the most miles. Traveling by rail, wagon and foot, he undertook a project that struck observers as ambitious and possibly insane. His goal, he said, was to salvage a heritage from oblivion, to document all the tribes in North America that were still intact.The result was his magnum opus, “The North American Indian,” a 20-volume text-and-image extravaganza, published between 1907 and 1930, that was praised and then forgotten in short order. Curtis spent his final years holed up in Southern California, living a marginal hand-to-mouth existence and consuming a pound of carrots a day in the hope of warding off blindness.
Timothy Egan offers a stirring and affectionate portrait of an underknown figure in “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.” Egan, a Seattle-based author and a writer for The New York Times, asks us to see Curtis as a hero in the mythic Western mode — i.e., outdoorsy, virile, untainted by bourgeois values. Initially a society portraitist with a studio in Seattle, he disliked commercial work and gave up a lucrative career to lug his tripod and glass-plate negatives around as he climbed Mount Rainier or descended a ladder into a Hopi kiva crawling with rattlesnakes. [Read the full article...]
Driven to Document a ‘Vanishing Race’ - ‘Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,’ by Timothy Egan
The New York Times Book Review – November 11, 2012 (Excerpt)
In the summer of 1900 the American photographer Edward S. Curtis traveled from his home in Seattle to the Blackfeet Nation on the plains of northern Montana. The trip, Timothy Egan writes in a new biography, was a turning point.
White Calf, a nearly 60-year-old chief, consented to let Curtis photograph his tribe’s village and its people, for a fair fee. He forbid photography only at the five-day Sun Dance, a ceremony that missionaries and federal agents were trying to eradicate. White Calf even agreed to be photographed himself, but when he showed up for his portrait, he wore a blond wig and a blue United States Army uniform. That wasn’t what Curtis wanted.
White Calf’s get-up perhaps referred to George A. Custer, who had met his end a generation earlier at the Little Bighorn. It also, in some sense, mocked Curtis’s impossible mission, which seized him on that very trip and which he pursued with monomaniacal passion for the next three decades: “The North American Indian,” a 20-volume encyclopedia of photographs and text on (supposedly) every “intact” American Indian nation on the North American continent. [Read the full article...]
CRIMSON DAWN Book One of the Darklife Saga by Ronnie Massey
Two Women Hunting A Rogue Vampire
Vampire Valeria Trumaine must confront old demons and face new possibilities as she struggles to bring a rogue vampire to justice. Her best friend and powerful Sidhe princess, Irulan, joins the hunt. Valeria will find that Irulan’s motives for keeping her safe are not what she thinks. And soon she is faced with an undeniable attraction that makes her question everything she knew about herself. [Read More...]
We are the only country that makes guns, including military-style assault weapons, available to anyone who wants to buy them. This is not freedom. It is a tyranny of death and destruction — a tyranny of which the National Rifle Association is proud. The Washington Post
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