As we move into the winter months, it’s time to hunker down with a good book, and this one is it! When I saw that Timothy Egan, author of The Worst Hard Time (about the Dust Bowl) and The Big Burn (about the Fire of 1910 that helped create the U.S. Forest Service), had published a book about the photographer Edward Curtis, I headed for the library.
In Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, Egan introduces us to the young photographer of the early 1900’s who started what would become his life’s career by taking a picture of Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, on a Seattle street.
Curtis was a driven man–hence, the title, “Short Nights.” He seldom slept. He set out on what was to become a life’s work of documenting about 80 American tribes. Not only did he document with unwieldy and crude cameras, but also with words–descriptions, languages, and alphabets–that have become invaluable today as tribes reclaim lost customs and languages. And he did it without today’s tape recorders, instant photography, and laptops.
Not enough has been written about Curtis. He’s come under criticism for “staging” photos–putting natives into traditional dress and ceremonies, and dramatic poses. And Egan has been criticized for not addressing that issue more in this book. But, as he pointed out, “Curtis was a documentarian only of a certain kind of life,”–the old life. He wanted that preserved before it was lost.
Initially, it’s clear Curtis saw this as a lucrative undertaking. He began his career when the American public was fascinated with the “Noble Savage.” He was encouraged by President Theodore Roosevelt and supported by the financier J.P. Morgan.
That changed. Interest in the American Indian waned in the affluent Jazz Age, followed by the Depression, and Curtis would spend the rest of his life scrounging money for his next excursion. He never drew a salary and even though he completed all 20 volumes of The North American Indian, he died penniless. He did, however, become an outspoken advocate for Native Americans during a time when few others were.
It’s an absorbing story–a disastrous home life, fascinating treks into wilderness areas (my favorite was his voyage to remote Nome and finding happy, healthy villages), short stints as a photographer in Hollywood to fund the next excursion, and hair-raising adventures. Twice, newspapers were preparing his obituary as reports of his being missing at sea drifted in.
I especially enjoyed the descriptions of all the people surrounding Curtis–his team of men and women (and his children!) who devoted their lives to this “losing” enterprise, his meeting with J.P. Morgan, his relationship with Morgan’s cold secretary (who held a secret in her past), his photography sessions with President Roosevelt and his family. Lots of good stories! I also appreciated the Curtis photos at the end of each chapter, photos Egan had described in that particular chapter.
After I finished reading the book, I ran across a review of another Curtis book back in 1985 in the Pacific Magazine of The Seattle Times/Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The review quoted Leonard Forsman, manager of the Suquamish Tribal Museum at that time. Today he is chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, not far from my home.
“Some of his images are a little stereotyped, showing people looking off into the distance in a noble pose, but he’s helped our museum document a number of traditions we have no other record of….There’s no feeling that he was exploiting the tribes.”
I’ve always appreciated Timothy Egan for his exacting research and his gifts as a story-teller that compel me to keep turning the pages. Once again, he hasn’t disappointed me.