Timothy Egan has the Midas touch for bringing historical figures to life on the page. His newest book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, examines the hardscrabble life of early twentieth century photographer, Edward Curtis. Before iconic American photographer, Ansel Adams, lugged his heavy equipment into the field to capture stunning landscapes, the lesser known Edward Curtis was lugging glass plates up the sides of Mount Rainier, determined to capture the essence of the mountain between billowing blankets of fog and the rising and setting sun.
Angeline was the first Indian subject immortalized by Curtis. She was the daughter of Chief Seattle and the last Native American living in Seattle at that time. The 1896 portrait Curtis took of her shortly before she died became a prototype for the intimate and honest portrayals that would consume his life.
From his initial contact with Pacific Northwest Indians, Curtis recognized that highly developed cultures were being snuffed out by American progress and a government mandate to sanitize and Christianize the continent’s prior peoples. Curtis developed a grandiose plan to document every Indian culture in the United States, not only with visual representations of their everyday lives, but also by recording their language, music, customs, rituals, and sacred beliefs.
With no formal education beyond the sixth grade, this visionary man took on an ethnology beyond the scope of any before or since. He became obsessed with finding and recording a rapidly vanishing race for posterity. The more time he spent in the field, living with Indians, learning their rites, their language, their humanity, the more important it became to correct the body of misinformation about America’s “heathens.” Besides ushering in an era of photo journalism, Curtis may also have been the first white human rights activist, determined to reveal the true stories behind men like Chief Joseph, Geronimo, and General George Custer.
The project he conceived, and achieved over 30 years, was a limited print edition of 20 volumes, organized by tribe and cultural area. The set includes over 2,000 of his 40,000 photogravure plates, along with text describing the cultural practices of 80 Native American tribes. Along with the photos and text, he included vocabularies and phonetic keys for 75 distinct languages.
The heartbreaking reality is that Curtis’s obsession with truth left him destitute and physically broken. His life work, a full set of The North American Indian, for which he never received a penny and which could barely be given away after the project was completed in 1930, was sold at Christies for $1.4 million dollars in 2005. His legacy is priceless in its contribution to the American story and psyche.
Egan eulogizes Curtis with care, reverence, and honesty, gently depicting a man so driven by the big picture that he loses important strands of his own life. If there is a failing in Egan’s book, it may be that there are not enough images. Egan’s descriptions stirs the imagination. Each chapter is followed by one or more full page Curtis images, but I wanted—I needed to see more. My curiosity lead to a marvelous website which augmented what Egan was unable to squeeze into a book of a manageable price and size. That left only one egregious missing element—a list of illustrations that were included in the book.
Reading about the Shadow Catcher has whetted my appetite to see more and to learn more about this man, Edward Curtis, who explained his persistence by saying, “I am one of those fanatical persons who wants to finish what he starts.” (p. 293)