Photographer Edward Curtis (1868-1952) built sandcastles with Teddy Roosevelt’s kids, challenged J.P. Morgan in his den and worked as second cameraman on “The Ten Commandments.”
All that was small beer compared with “The North American Indian,” his 20-volume photographic and written record of what then was a rapidly declining culture. Yet he died 60 years ago forgotten by all but a few.
In “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” Timothy Egan traces the remarkable arc of a poor boy in the Pacific northwest who developed an uncommon talent for shooting people with a camera.
Already on his way to becoming the “premier portrait photographer in the U.S.,” Curtis also had been shooting nature and Indians around Seattle in his mid-20s when a chance meeting changed his life. He rescued a party of climbers on Mount Rainer and made a strong impression on two famous men among them.
Through C. Hart Merriam, cofounder of the National Geographic Society, Curtis got invited to be official photographer on a scientific expedition to Alaska. George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society and an expert on Plains Indians, also made the Alaska trip and conveyed to Curtis “a sense of urgency about the passing of so much that was original to the continent.”
On a subsequent trip, to the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, Grinnell pushed Curtis to consider making a book from the many Indian photos he was taking, and so arose “a plan to photograph all intact Indian communities left in North America.”
Egan, a Seattle native, shared in a Pulitzer Prize for a New York Times series on race and won a National Book Award for his Dust Bowl history, “The Worst Hard Time” (2006). That book and others he has written about the western U.S. show how attuned he is to large-scale loss.
He describes how millions of acres of prairie grass that anchored the soil of the High Plains was plowed up to plant grain, and how drought turned the exposed soil to dust that rose in huge storm clouds reaching as far east as New York while many broken farmers fled west in search of new land. He tells much of this by finding decades later several plains families, still living witnesses who had held on.
In “The Big Burn” (2009), Egan reveals the small and large players who fought the biggest forest fire ever to hit the U.S. or used it to argue for conservation.
The opening chapter mesmerizes with a 1910 town’s view of an inferno, starting from an opening line better than most novels offer: “Here now came the fire down from the Bitterroot Mountains and showered embers and forest shrapnel onto the town that was supposed to be protected by all those men with faraway accents and empty stomachs.”
Both books are remarkable pieces of journalism and suggest why Egan would appreciate the efforts Curtis expended to give shape and voice to the remnants of another beleaguered group.
In photographing, researching and writing his first two volumes -- the text included language, rituals, customs, music and more -- Curtis soaked up most of the money his portrait studio generated and spent years away from home. Even when Morgan agreed to bankroll the project -- a scene Egan recreates with persuasive sharpness -- Curtis continued to take only expense money, no salary.
Midway through the project, he was “facing bankruptcy and a failed marriage,” while his debts exceeded $50,000 and “he had less than $150 in the bank.” He pushed on, and after 33 years, the completed 20 volumes “contained more than 2,200 original pictures, almost 4,000 pages of text, including transcriptions of hundreds of songs and dozens of languages.”
The monumental task was completed shortly after the 1929 stock crash. The country’s attention was elsewhere. Egan writes: “When the final volume of the Indian work had been printed in 1930, Curtis faced the only thing worse than a bad review: silence.”
I emphasize the trials Curtis endured partly to highlight the man’s persistence. Egan’s book is also a catalog of joyous discovery as Curtis, with his charm and bribes, broke down reluctance and recorded not just the uncommon faces and sites his lens captured -- and the Egan book includes many exquisite Curtis photos -- but much about Indian life the tribes had never revealed.
And the beauty of the West: Captured in photos that inspired John Ford’s great oaters, it is recreated again in Egan’s prose as his research took him “to nearly every tribal homeland that Curtis had gone to.”
In one triumphal moment, Curtis photographed “a deerskin scroll holding symbols of the Apache creation myth.” He discovered and preserved so much that could have been lost otherwise, as Egan did on the High Plains.
Curtis was rediscovered in the 1970s. In the past decade, complete 20-volume sets have sold for as much as $1.8 million. So there have been many books about the shutterbug, but Egan’s keen sense of place, people and history makes “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher” an exceptional marriage of author and subject.
“Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (370 pages, $28). To order this book in North America, click here.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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