"Edward Curtis was dashing, charismatic, a passionate mountaineer, a famous photographer--the Annie Liebowitz of his time. And he was thirty-two years old in 1900 when he gave it all up to pursue his great idea: He would try to capture on film the Native American nation before it disappeared. At once an incredible adventure narrative and a penetrating biographical portrait, Egan's book tells the remarkable untold story behind Curtis's iconic photographs, following him throughout Indian country from desert to rainforest as he struggled to document the stories and rituals of more than eighty tribes. Even with the backing of Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan, it took tremendous perseverance--six years alone to convince the Hopi to allow him into their Snake Dance ceremony. The undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate. He would die penniless and unknown in Hollywood just a few years after publishing the last of his twenty volumes. But the charming rogue with the grade-school education had fulfilled his promise--his great adventure succeeded in creating one of America's most stunning cultural achievements."--
Edward Curtis came to Seattle, Washington when it was a young, dirty, pioneer town populated by lumberjacks and gold miners. His father had brought the family and settled into poverty. Curtis attached himself to a photographer and began to take photograpThs of the town's inhabitants. He discover his great passion in life when he photographed the daughter of the Indian chief Seattle is supposedly named for. "Princess Angeline" was aged, poor, had a face with enough wrinkles to rival the interstate highway system of today. She was teased and bullied by the young boys and she threw rocks back at them. Her portrait shows her disgust with how her life has turned out due to these new settlers in her home country.
Curtis who had dropped out of school had the intelligence to see the magnificant American Indians and their way of life was doomed and if he did not take the photographs now, all evidence would be lost.
He spent the next 30-40 years traveling North American taking photographs, and doing anthropology he did not even know he was doing. He became associated with other great men: Teddy Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, Edmund Meany, and a series of talented, dedicated assistants. He worked for nothing, and he paid his assistants little and seldom.
This book is the story of those years and the production of a 20 volume magnus opus: The Indians of North America. These volumes are rare and are seldom sold but with in the last decade they have been selling for $2 million and more. Individual prints of his photographs are famous and treasured. The work is hailed today by professionals and by the Indian communities Curtis documented.
This book brings all of this to life. I grew to love Curtis and I'm promising myself to go visit the gallery in Seattle which shows his work. Unfortunately, like many geniuses he was not appreciated when he was alive, and died in relative obscuring. Thankfully, a librarian in Seattle got wind of the work, and the man, and sought him out before he died. He corresponded with her and told her much of his story.
Timothy Egan has done his usual excellent research and I think the book is excellent. Recommended without reservation (opps sorry should have thought of another word, maybe).
It's really the biography of a book...a series of books...as much as it is the biography of a man. Curtis was a man who lived in pursuit of--really, enslaved to--a vision. What he called his "big idea"; to photograph every Native American tribe in America. So it isn't surprising that it becomes hard to disentangle the man from the work. Especially since in pursuit of the work, Curtis sacrificed many of the things we would normally look for in the biography of a man: his marriage, his career, his friends and family. 20 volumes... it staggers the imagination. Curtis original told JP Morgan, who he was hitting up to finance the project, that it would take 5 years and cost $75,000. It took more than 30 years and cost a quarter of a million, of which not a dime went to Curtis himself.
Oddly enough, although this is a book about a photographer, "photography" is not the biographer's strong point. His descriptions of the processes Curtis used -- he insisted on old fashioned glass plate negatives and a variety of developing processes, some of which involved printing onto gold -- are utilitarian and conscientious, but do little to bring a real "feel" for the work of the photographer to the reader. Egan is on stronger ground, though, when he talks about the photographs themselves as art, and his sense of Curtis the artist is a good one. One gets the feeling that although Egan doesn't quite understand how to take a good picture, he knows when he is looking at one. And his grasp of how Curtis was drawn to this or that subject is very strong, beginning right at the start of the book with the story of how Curtis convinced "Princess Evangeline," last surviving daughter of Chief Seattle, to sit for a portrait. His first Indian picture.
Where the book really shines, though, is in an unexpected area: Curtis the self-taught anthropologist. In order for Curtis to get some of the iconic photographs we now treasure today, he had to be accepted into the community, the tribe. And not just one tribe, but EVERY tribe he dragged his camera equipment to see. He often returned to the same tribe year after year, building his rapport with elders and medicine men and tribal leaders. He became so integrated among the Hopi he actually became a snake priest. It was the only way they'd let him watch...much less photograph, some of the rituals he wanted to document.
It meant that Curtis's understanding of Native American life, and especially Native American spirituality, was profound. At a time when government policy (backed by Christian missionaries) was to suppress the "savage rites" of a basically godless people, Curtis understood that the internal life of the Indian was deeply, profoundly spiritual. ("They worship the sun," he said in a letter to a friend, "in the same way that a Christian worships the Cross.")
Not many people realize that Curtis wasn't just taking photographs. He was conducting full anthropological expeditions. He dragged around a wax-cylinder recording device and recorded songs and chants. He hired a writer and an editor and the group of them would work 16 hour days getting down vocabularies and making language notes for languages that are now lost to us today. And although his lack of a university degree meant Curtis was often looked down on in his own time by the academic echelon ensconced in places like the Smithsonian, nowadays his reputation is almost solid gold. And his 30 year mad dash around the country to document and preserve what could be preserved about what Curtis called "the Vanishing Race" is the only reason we have much of what we do know about traditional Native American life. In fact, when Native Americans began to reclaim their heritage and revive the practice of old languages, customs and rituals, they often relied on the material that Curtis had collected to help them.
It's hard not to be aware of how much might have been lost forever, if not for the great lucky chance of this one, driven man. Such a fragile thread upon which to hang the history of an entire people.
Through it all Egan has made him larger than life in his profession, but I felt that I did not know him at all as an individual, much as his children did not know him. Perhaps it would not be possible because his writing was his work and his work was his writing. How were we to know him? My only disappointment was to see so few photos in this book. Each chapter ended with two or three photos, when he took about 40,000. But that will just make me want to search further.
The first chapter, of how the young studio photographer Curtis took the now-iconic picture of Princess Angeline, the elderly granddaughter of Chief Seattle who lived as a bag lady in his namesake city, is worth the price of the book: short, poetic and powerful. Chapter 10, in which Curtis visits the Little Bighorn with three former scouts who were at the battle and discovers that everything everybody knew about the tragedy was wrong, is nearly as impressive. Along the way there are great vignettes involving Curtis's friend Teddy Roosevelt, his patron J.P. Morgan, and his invaluable friend and guide Alexander Upshaw, the Native American who got Curtis closer to the tribes than he could have hoped to have gotten by himself. Upshaw's story is the Indian story in a nutshell.
Curtis's story is rich with surprise, adventure, and heartbreak, and Egan's prose is poetic and just. This is the best book I've read in the past year.
Overall, I found this book to be very interesting and engaging. It read more as a story than a mere recitation of history. The author brought Curtis and his journey to life, making the reader understand the challenges and frustrations over time.
Short Nights tells how it came about that Curtis struggled the best part of his life to get funding for his massive project of documenting the fading culture and way of life of Native Americans. Curtis' purpose was to document traditional tribal culture not to illustrate cultural adaption or how contemporary natives were living. He always sought to show his subject's dignity. Apparently Curtis' motivation was completely misunderstood by the critics I encountered.
Short Nights is a fascinating biography though Egan failed to explain how Curtis could have been so poor a businessman. One needs to have another book of Curtis photos to accompany the Egan narrative.
Curtis singlemindedly pursued one life vision from the late 1800s through the First World War: document the American Indian as she and he truly lived, before the American expansion, Manifest Destiny, and a culture of blatant racism and greed assimilated them. Although it cost him much - Curtis lost his wife, his reputation, and died penniless - his work documenting the reality of Native life was astounding. He produced twenty volumes of work, so exquisitely printed that the first reviews of his books were said to rival only the King James Bible. He made 200,000 photos. He recorded 10,000 songs. He wrote vocabularies and alphabets for 75 languages, many of which have been used by those tribes' descendants to revive their language. He transcribed rituals, stories, mythology. He produced the first deeply researched reconstruction of Custer's shameful work in The Battle of Little Big Horn, by talking to eyewitnesses on both sides of the battle. He told the story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce wars, followed by the in humane treatment of the natives.
The Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher does an outstanding job of bringing this visionary the credit he deserves for such phenomenal work.
It is an interesting coincidence that, shortly before the rise of the IDLE NO MORE movement, the National Book Award winners for fiction ( Louise Erdrich's THE ROUNDHOUSE) and non-fiction ( Timothy Egan's THE SHORT NIGHTS OF THE SHADOWCATCHER) would both address the injustice and brutal treatment that Native Americans have experienced.
Once upon a time (in the late 1800's), a young man discovered the emerging art form of photography. And he discovered that he was good at it. And he began to make a living at it – a very good living, until he was the premiere portrait photographer of the also-emerging city of Seattle. And then one day he met a princess on the beach, and he fell in love.
He didn't fall in love with the princess, though.
The young man was (of course) Edward Curtis, who is a textbook example of American Dream/self-made man/rags to riches, the kind of success story that … I don't know, can that kind of thing still happen? And the princess was Princess Angeline, aged daughter of Chief Seattle of the exiled or possibly extinct Duwamish, who lived in a shack and scavenged on the beach. Indians had been forbidden to live in Seattle, but she ignored the law, and the law ignored her, and on she lingered. And in the sight of her gathering mussels on the beach one day, Edward Curtis saw something remarkable, and photographed it. And then brought her to his studio and took her portrait. And upon this intersection with her life he began to realize that she was representative of something remarkable, and terrible: the driving out of native Indian people from the lands they had inhabited from time immemorial. He realized that he was there at the very moment before the Indians and the many and varied cultures they had built up over centuries … vanished. Between "civilized" expansion and missionary zeal not only the physical but the cultural existence of every tribe was being obliterated. Curtis's realization became an interest, and the interest became a fascination, and the fascination became an obsession, and for the next quarter century the obsession would send him throughout the country racing the tide of progress to find the remnants of each tribe, to talk to elders, and to make a record of what was disappearing.
The result of and also the purpose for this project was supposed to be a multi-volume masterwork of biography, ethnology, anthropology, and – perhaps most prominently – photography, each volume of The North American Indian concentrating on a small number of tribes, or just one, depending on how much access he could gain and how much information he could glean – which depended on how much of each tribe still survived. "Supposed to be" – because nothing, especially art and especially dreams, is ever that simple. It was an expensive proposition to travel to every tribe (and ghost of a tribe) and make the extensive record he insisted upon: not simply photographs (though Curtis's photos were never simple; his preferred method of developing was the most deluxe and most expensive, and when he couldn't do that he did the second most), but audio recordings and, when he met up with the technology, film – and while Curtis had long since been able to charge top dollar for his society portraits, it didn't take long for his personal finances to begin to suffer. In a way, this was a very familiar story. An artist with a big, spectacular, life-changing, world-changing idea can't afford its execution on his own, and everyone he turns to for assistance has the same reaction: "What a great project! Why, it will be a boon to humanity. I hope you get lots of donations for it. You let me know how that goes. Bye now."
I loved this book. The personalities involved in the Project were many and varied – from Teddy Roosevelt to Chief Joseph, from J.P. Morgan to Libbie Custer – and so were their motivations. The overweening belief that one's way of life and of worship is simply better than anyone else's, driving armies of spiritual and bureaucratic missionaries to stomp the native cultures into something more resembling themselves (only inferior, of course, because they were never sufficiently like). The money men who had made all their profits by always looking for substantial returns, unable to divorce even a philanthropic and priceless gesture from the need to see it produce revenue. The heads buried so deep in the sand of false, but pretty, history that any attempt to uncover a real story is fought against, viciously. The bitterness of former partners left behind to pick up slack and keep the home fires burning and all that, with little to show for it. The obsession, blind to everything else, overwhelming everything else, from familial affection to self-preservation. It's all here, and more besides, skilfully woven together and picked apart in utterly readable, often chatty (I loved that the Sioux are described as "scary good at bloodletting"), sometimes poetic prose.
If nothing else, I'm deeply appreciative of having been introduced to Curtis's photographs. The Kindle edition I read was lacking there – many of the referenced photos are included in the book, but not all of those were visible to me as I read; given a choice, I would prefer this book in paper form, to allow for quicker and easier access to the images while reading. (Meanwhile, I've begun collecting them on Pinterest.)
From a perspective of a hundred years later, it all makes so much more sense, all seems so much more vital than it must have to Curtis's wife. She was the one who suffered from his obsession – stuck at home with a growing family of small children, coping with her husband's oft-abandoned portrait studio and the family feud left in Edward's wake and – harshest of all – the steady draining away of the family's money into funding The Project. But the view from here is so different. Despite the protracted spent on the project, the pressure Curtis felt to make haste was palpable: even just reading I was always aware of the desperation to capture and record as much as possible before it was too late, before the cultures were gone and the elderly who were the only ones to remember were dead. It felt like trying to catch hold of the edge of the tide as it went out.
From here, Curtis is utterly vindicated. His work was important enough to warrant the suffering. His is in many cases the only such preservation done – there are several stories of tribes many years after, when all of the elders were gone and no one was left to remember the old ways which had suddenly become important again, turning to Curtis's work and through it being able to resurrect the ways they were so long forbidden. I think he'd be pleased.