A tireless documenter of Native America: A review of "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher"

  • An Edward Curtis photograph, ca. 1923: Watching for Salmon – Hupa.

    Library of Congress
 

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis
Timothy Egan
412 pages, hardcover: $28.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

In Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Timothy Egan, who also won the National Book Award in 2006 for The Worst Hard Times, chronicles the life story of photographer Edward Curtis in engrossing detail.

Curtis, famous in the late 1890s for his Seattle society portraits, began a 30-year adventure the day he saw Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, walking the mudflats in search of clams. In Angeline, Curtis saw "a person and nature, one and the same in his mind, as they belonged." These first images inspired an ambitious plan: In 1900, Curtis abandoned his successful studio career to wander the country and "photograph all intact Indian communities left in North America, to capture the essence of their lives before that essence disappeared."

Egan vividly conveys the sense of urgency Curtis felt as he raced to record the customs of more than 80 tribes. Curtis spent years among the Indians to gain their trust, determined to create stories and photographs that reflected each society's true spirit and life, although, as critics have noted, he was not above staging scenes based on research, or manipulating photos to get the effects he wanted. As time passed, Curtis began to believe that the "American Indians could vanish within (his) lifetime. Perhaps he was already too late." And every year, more Indians turned away from their culture, forced to do so by the rules of the day, which made embracing the old customs -- even speaking the old languages -- illegal.

Financial backing was a constant problem. Curtis envisioned publishing 20 volumes of work, using only the finest paper and photography methods available. His frustration is tangible as the necessary support was denied time and again. Fortunately, he eventually obtained backing from the wealthy J.P. Morgan and was able to complete his epic project.

Even though he accomplished an amazing amount -- leaving behind some 40,000 photographs, 10,000 recorded songs, several "moving pictures," and vocabularies and pronunciation guides for over 75 languages -- Edward Curtis sacrificed his marriage, money and health to the project, and died penniless and practically forgotten in 1952. Egan's exhaustive research and compelling text pull readers into the photographer's life and vision, giving overdue acclaim to a man whose work is now used by Native communities to help resurrect half-forgotten languages and customs. Reproductions of some of Curtis' more famous photographs round out this riveting biography.