"At once an incredible adventure narrative and a penetrating biographical portrait, Egan's book tells the remarkable untold story behind Edward 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. 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"--Publisher's description.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.