on September 4, 2012
I had heard of Edward Curtis but knew only that he was a photographer, and that he took many pictures of American Indians in the early 1900's. That should make me ashamed, since I lived in Seattle, Curtis's home town, for many years.
Timothy Egan's book gives a detailed, balanced look at Curtis's life and his life's work: Publication of a 20-volume look at American Indian communities in the early 20th century. Just thinking about such a venture makes me tired, but Curtis was tireless (hence the "short nights" in the title -- he rarely slept). The series would include not just photographs but a lexicon preserving languages, and in the making of this Curtis would make film and audio records of songs and ceremonies that would have been lost forever.
His ambition seems quite unrealistic, almost delusional, to someone from present day. Traveling thousands of miles with bulky photographic equipment, in unmapped territory without the benefit of conveniences we take for granted -- GPS, airplanes, cell phones, overnight delivery, fax machines. He and his team made a photographic and textual record that has never been equalled, and probably never will be. And during this time he made a movie and developed a stage presentation that wowed even the most sophisticated audiences.
Even if you're not particularly interested in photography or American Indians, Egan's book is fascinating as a look at the early 1900's, movers and shakers, people like J. P. Morgan and Theodore Roosevelt. Egan's writing is brisk, his descriptions evocative. It never bogged down, even when things weren't going well for Curtis.
The book is full of flavor and color, success and hardship, but more important, Egan, through showing us Curtis's life and his work, has brought home the devastation and loss of American's First People. Destruction and loss of their cultures has hurt every American, not just Indians. That's what I took from this book.
The epilogue was heartening, and it's also heartening that Curtis knew the value of his work, even if it wasn't fully realized until after he was dead.
Timothy Egan has done it again. He is a columnist for the New York Times, often writing articles on the American West. Thanks to the Vine program, I've read a couple of others of his works: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America and The Worst Hard Time. Both were well-written and well-researched accounts of some aspect of American history that had largely eluded me. The latter book even "changed my life," well, at least led me to be a "tourist" in Dalhart, Texas, for a day, which was an epicenter for the Dust Bowl catastrophe. Fortunately, the skies were clear that day. So, when this book popped up in my Vine offerings, I had to say YES, please, and once again was not disappointed, and now I am even a bit more informed.
Alas, I had never heard of Edward Curtis, (`Tis embarrassing to say), a/k/a, "The Shadow Catcher," an apt name for a photographer. Sure, there were Joseph Stieglitz, and Ansel Adams, brilliant photographers, both, but in terms of life achievement, Curtis at least equaled, and perhaps even surpassed them. I had seen his photographs before, for example, the seven horsemen in the Canyon de Chelly, but it took Egan to make me realize the whole. With the death of his father, at a youthful age, he became the principal support of his family. They moved to Seattle in the late 1800's. He became successful in the new medium of photography, operating the studio that catered to the "rich and famous," in a new boom town. And that could have been that. But no, Curtis developed an obsession, the magnificent obsession even, of capturing representative samples of all the Indian tribes of North American, both in photographs, as well as recordings of their languages, before they were completely overwhelmed by the forces of "modernity," often as exemplified by going, "war bonnet" in hand, to meet "the man," the government agent.
It wasn't easy. Curtis was poor all of his life, hounded by creditors, and though he often had a "good press," and friends in high places, including President Theodore Roosevelt and JP Morgan, he was usually begging for money. His "mistress," the Indians, cost him his wife, though three of his children sided with him. But for sheer achievement, though he was an unappreciated prophet in the wilderness, decades before his time, he delivered in spades, many times over. He saw what was immediately before him, taking a haunting picture of a "beggar woman," Princess Angeline, last surviving child of Chief Seattle, a year before she died. (We have a similar woman who wanders our neighborhoods...should not this book be the catalyst to ask why, and even take her picture?). He got a lucky break, hiking another obsession of his, Mt. Rainer, and meeting, and helping a hiking party which included Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society, and Clint Merriam, co-founder of National Geographic. With suitable introductions in place, he was invited as the photographer for an expedition funded by the railroad magnet, E. H. Harriman, to Alaska.
In 1900 he was with the Blackfeet, on their reservation near Glacier National Park. He witnessed, and photographed their encampment, ready for the Sun Dance. Perhaps the most tragic of all Indian tribes is the Nez Perce, who had constantly befriended the white man, and truly saving Lewis and Clark, only to be repaid with constantly broken promises. Curtis took an achingly beautiful picture, which captures their tragedy, in Chief Joseph, a year before he died. Curtis also spent much time in the Southwest, with the Hopi, and was even included in their Snake Dance. He was at the oldest continuously inhabited city in North America, Acoma, and again "scored," photographically, with women drawing water from a pool. He got an Apache medicine man to open up about their religion, one that the "experts" back east claimed they did not have. He took an excellent picture of Geronimo before his death. Curtis bore witness to the demise of the Indians along the Columbia River. He spent time with the fragmented tribes in Oklahoma and California. He did a movie entitled "In the Land of the Head-Hunters," about the coastal Indians of British Columbia. Some of his very best work, among happy people, was with the Eskimo, near Nome, Alaska, just before the Great Depression rolled in. With persistence, basic respect, a knack for picking good interpreters, and yes, some money, he was able to have virtually all the tribes open up to him, and reveal much of their inner life. He was auto-didactic, as so many of us are. His formal education stopped in 6th-grade, and thus his accomplishments were often ignored by the PhD "experts."
Overall, it took him almost three decades. He produced a high quality, 20 volume edition, which sold around 300 copies. Truly, the Sorrow and the Pity. The Morgan library obtained all the rights, but lost interest, and sold them all, including the plates, for a thousand bucks. And now fragments of his work are sold for millions in auction.
Personally, his obsession resonated with me. Over a similar period of approximately three decades I watched the demise of the Bedouin of Saudi Arabia, whose old ways are gone forever. Fragments, and it is only that, the flakes of their lives, have been captures by various amateurs, but none with the singular obsession of Edward Curtis.
Timothy Egan's prose style is lucid and informative, and he manages to capture the ironic twists of life. Another excellent, worthwhile history. Many thanks. 5-stars, plus.
[ Note: As with all Vine offerings, there is the usual caveat that this copy is a "proof" copy, and corrections may be made prior to actual publication. I hope so! Otherwise, there may be a "recall." Pages 15 and 223 were duplicated twice, and since the text did not appear correct, it would appear that two pages are missing]
The largest anthropological enterprise ever undertaken?
That's Mick Gidley, a professor of American literature, as quoted by Timothy Egan near the end of this exhaustive, gripping look at the life of photographer Edward Curtis.
M. Scott Momaday, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn, lauded Curtis for capturing the Indians of North America "so close to the origins of their humanity, their sense of themselves in the world..."
Egan's "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis," makes a clear case that the accolades are justified.
You will recognize many if the iconic pictures Curtis captured. Woman and Child, 1927. Geronimo--Apache, 1905. Many more. And perhaps, like me, you never stopped to think too long about the work required to produce them. "Short Nights" fills the gap.
Egan traces Curtis from his first picture in Seattle (1896), when he was no crusader for Indian rights. "Curtis wanted pictures. Indians their treat rights, political autonomy and property disputes--all of that was somebody else's fight. Politics. Injustice. Blah, blah, blah. Who cares? The exchange between photographer and subject was purely a business proposition..."
That view doesn't last long. Curtis' empathy grows as he finds his way inside a variety of Indian cultures. In the end, Curtis took 40,000 photographs, recorded 10,000 songs, captured vocabulary and pronunciation guides for 75 languages and a documented an "incalculable number of myths, rituals and religious stories from deep oral histories."
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is a terrific biography of Curtis that weaves in and out of the fabric of U.S. history and will make you wonder what kind of country we would have created had early settlers and Native Americans found a way to co-exist, or if just a slice of Curtis' open-mindedness governed the interactions from the outset.
Curtis' determination to document the Native American cultures before they slipped into the void of history is, quite simply, off the charts. "I want to make them live forever," he said. "It's such a big dream I can't see it all, so many tribes to visit."
Egan tracks Curtis back and forth across the country, to the American Southwest and the Pacific Northwest and the High Plains and Oklahoma and everywhere Native Americans called home, even if their "homes" had been it drastically altered in their losing negotiations with the European settlers.
"After a year's absence, Curtis noticed that natives of the Southwest had changed Government agents who had banned even more ceremonies. As in Montana, children were hauled off to boarding schools run by the missions, where their spiritual lives were handed over to another God. The boys were supposed to learn how to farm and read, the girls how to be homemakers and serve tea. Those who resisted were threatened with a loss of provisions and derided as `blanket Indians.'"
Curtis comes across as fanatical, restless, eager and endlessly unsatisfied with his work.
"After several weeks, he was allowed to follow Apache women as they harvested mescal, roasted it in a pit and mixed it for a drink. Still, he was only scratching the surface--an embedded tourist. He wanted detail, detail and more detail. He heard whispered talk about a painted animal skin, a chart of some kind that was the key to understanding Apache spiritual practices. Curtis offered a medicine man $100--a fortune, more than any person on the reservation could earn in a year--if he would show him the skin and explain what the symbols meant. His bribe was rejected."
Curtis' fame grows. He struggles to get close--and disappear within--various tribes. He descends a Hopi ladder into a Kiva "thick with rattlesnakes." He seeks financing through the powerful J.P. Morgan and struggles for decades to meet the schedule and obligations that Morgan funded. Curtis analyzes the site of Custer's Last Stand and, together with his interviews with Native Americans, draws a controversial conclusion that Custer "had unnecessarily sacrificed the lives of his soldiers to further his personal end," drawing scorn from President Roosevelt and others.
In one of the most moving chapters, Egan details Curtis' relationship with Alexander Upshaw, a Crow from Montana who had been raised in a boarding school in Pennsylvania and who became Curtis' most valuable interpreter--a "fixer" in today's media lingo--who smoothed the way for Curtis as he approached new societies.
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher has heft, detail and history but also rides lightly on Egan's magical narrative touch. The reading is a breeze, the details powerful. It's easy to spot the places where it might have been easy for Curtis to chart a different and perhaps more satisfying course but Egan makes it clear that Curtis' agenda and zeal were at a level of intensity that overshadowed normal self-analysis.
Egan: "His theme, consistent from the beginning, was that Indians were spiritual, adaptive people with complex societies. They had been massively misunderstood from the start of their encounters with European settlers, and they were passing away before the eyes of a generation, mostly through no fault of their own. For them, the present was all of decline, the future practically nonexistent, the past glorious."
Susan Sontag once said that photographs "alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe."
Curtis spent his life opening the eyes of those who preferred to look away or ignore what was happening to the Indians. Egan, in turn, finds mountains of humanity in the life of Edward Curtis and opens our eyes to a man who worked to "enlarge our notions" through photography and ethnography and change the way we treated our fellow human beings. Or, at least, tried.
Early nineteenth Century Photographer Edward S. Curtis quickly acquired several nicknames from the various American Indian tribes that he visited to document their way of life. "Shadow Catcher" was the one that most referred to his ability to capture images on his camera. "The Man Who Sleeps on His Breath" referred to his use of an inflatable mattress that he blew up by blowing air into it every night before going to sleep.
Near the end of his life, Curtis would apply another nickname to himself. "Following the Indian form of naming men, I would be termed, `The Man Who never Took Time to Play.'" He'd come up with this nickname after discussing his work habits. "It's safe to say that in the last fifty years I have averaged sixteen hours a day, seven days a week" working to complete my documentation of "The North American Indian."
Curtis was an "Indiana Jones" with a camera. Over his long and productive life he managed to take 40,000 photos using a large camera format and glass plate (14 X17 inch) negatives of Native Americans as they were disappearing from the American scene. He also recorded 10,000 Indian songs on wax cylinders, "wrote down vocabularies and pronunciation guides for 75 languages, and transcribed an incalculable number of myths, rituals and religious stories from oral history." He also transferred his music recordings to actual sheet music.
He was famous during the first part of his monumental Native American documentation. He was a personal friend of President Teddy Roosevelt and sponsored by J.P. Morgan. Curtis enjoyed great public acclaim for his 20 volume history series. He was an international celebrity. However, his 33-year project wasn't finally completed until long after its novelty with the public had vanished.
Because Curtis was a terrible businessman J.P. Morgan accepted his offer to personally work for free. Morgan only paid for his expeditions and the eventual printing of the books. Morgan eventually also ended up with all rights to Curtis's life of cutting edge work. J.P. knew a bargain when it was offered to him.
In 2009, during that deep economic recession, a single set of the 20 Volume series sold at auction for $1.8 million dollars. The value of the work was finally being realized by the public.
"Curtis was the first person to conduct a thorough historical autopsy of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, from both the Indians side and that of the cavalry." He walked the battleground with men who had actually taken part in the battle. His revelations were deemed too explosive to publish in his Magnus Opus and shelved until future generations could bear to hear the truths he recorded. He produced one of the first documentary films about the Indians titled "In the Land of the Head-Hunters." After a much-heralded début, the film was tied up in legal problems with the distributor and disappeared for 33 years. Like all of his work with Native Americans Curtis never made a dime and actually lost money on his monumental works and died dirt poor in the smog choked slums of Beverly Hills, CA. No kidding, Beverly Hills had some slums.
This highly readable, illustrated biography was one of the most enjoyable books this reviewer has read in years. As an ex-photographer, would-be adventurer, art and book collector this book's subject fascinated me. When I was traveling around the Amazon Basin in the 1960s taking photographs for National Geographic, I too loved to take pictures of Amazon Indians. However, I would not have gone one step out of my way to photograph cannibals or head hunters unless I was certain of remaining safe throughout the experience.
Curtis was a much more adventurous soul than this reviewer. He also had incredible stamina and was able to work 24/7/365 almost without sleep in locations almost unfit for human existance. He was driven by his desire to capture an important part of world history that was dying so fast he knew he'd never be able to document it all for posterity. He was constantly aware that the images and information he sought were disappearing every day and would soon be lost forever.
Curtis had discovered photography almost by accident. He later opened his eyes up to the Native Americans living in squalor in his hometown of Seattle. Although the city is named after the great chief, Seattle, Indians were not allowed to live within the city limits. Like so many photographers, he realized the need to photograph the disappearing Native American Culture because it was happening all around him and most of the population failed to see it much less care about it.
At the same time I was reading this wonderful biography that picked up speed as it progressed, I was also reading "Edward S. Curtis: Visions of the First Americans" by Don Gulbrandsen. That large coffee table book includes more than 300 photographs by Edwin S. Curtis. Many of those photographs are reproduced in the same size and format as the original glass plate negatives. If ever there were two books that should be read together as a set, these two books are they. Reading the descriptions of the struggles of taking certain photographs in Egan's excellent biography makes it much easier to better appreciate some of the nuances of the reproductions in Gulbrandsen's collection of actual Curtis images of a now vanished world.
on February 14, 2013
Timothy Egan's writing is typically strong, his research typically thorough,his insights typically informing. But this is a book about PHOTOGRAPHY and the publisher, God knows why, printed the photos on the same rough paper stock that was used for the text pages. As a result, the photos are fuzzy, lack definition, lose the subtle shadings that make great photos true art, and are hugely disappointing. It's purely and simply a cost-cutting measure, but in this case ruins the book's true essence. And God knows again, they must have made enough money off of TE to afford decent print stock.
on November 11, 2012
I must confess to some bias in my review of Timothy Egan's biography of Edward S. Curtis. When I married my husband over 50 years ago, I married a second cousin once removed of Edward S. Curtis. My husband's mother was a first cousin of Edward Curtis and I heard much about him and saw many of his photogravures as well as one glorious orotone of Crater Lake which he had presented to my mother-in-law.
While I have read several books about Edward Curtis, including the one written by his daughter Florence, this one is the most thoroughly researched and moving. I have always felt that much has been said about the photographs that Curtis took but hardly anything said about the 20 volumes of narrative which he and others wrote. This book describes the work that went into those and leaves me eager to get to a reference library to take a look at Volume XX as well as its accompanying portfolio of photographs.
on November 3, 2012
This missive is really more of an expression of my profound gratitude to Mr. Egan for having taken the time to bring the life and times of Edward Curtis to the attention of a wider audience. They were extraordinary, intimate times when a man or woman of talent with certain energy and vision could motor the waterways of the Pacific ocean with accomplished men or take a place at the dinner table of a president of the United States without too much fuss. We were (perhaps) more "democratic" then than now as our country was so much smaller, less layered and more accessible. Talent was recognized, embraced and celebrated when it was seen.
I am a voracious reader across a wide spectrum of subjects but have a particular affinity for the post American Civil War/Pre WWII "period". I began reading this book as my sweetheart and I boarded the last flight out of Newark bound for Europe before the airport was shut down by Sandy. I got into the meat of it whilst in Paris and finished it up last night in a small town somewhere in Flanders (Belgium) during a roaring cold rain.
Egan's book is among the finest I have read on any biographical subject. He is a master story teller. His brilliance is in not only telling a good tale but having the brains to focus on subject matter that is pure American DNA.
Congrats to him for a work really well done. It will rest among the "best of the best" as time passes.
on December 23, 2012
Sadly Timothy Egan's wonderful biography of Edward S. Curtis is lacking in a most vital way. After rhapsodizing (appropriately) about the quality of Curtis' work, the reproduction of the few examples is so pathetic that it makes newspaper quality blush. What a shame to read about a photo only to find a sea of gray goo at the end of the chapter. This might be forgivable in another work, but when the subject IS photography...Nobody will be convinced by the examples here that Curtis knew anything about photography, you will have to seek solace somewhere else.
on November 26, 2013
Timothy Egan, whose superb research and prose brought the American Dust Bowl vividly to life in The Worst Hard Time, has provided a tantalizing glimpse into the life of Edward S. Curtis. I can't think of another living historian and author who writes with so much authenticity, and genuine feeling for the lives of his subjects. Curtis, the photographer of American Indian men, women, and children, presented them with a contrived artistry, has been written about before. But he needed a writer with Timothy Egan's gift of language to bring him to life. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
SHORT NIGHTS OF THE SHADOW CATCHER REVIEW
Edward Curtis, 1868-1952, had a dream. The noted photographer and ethnologist intended to produce a comprehensive record of American Indian culture before the actual scene was erased by time. He intended to use photography, interviews, and recordings in the publishing of a massive 20-volume set of limited-edition books, hand-bound in leather with hand-set letter press print, hand-processed photogravure prints, and hand-made, imported etching stock. The magnificent set would be sold by subscription only, limited to 2,000 editions.
Author Timothy Egan also had a vision of writing a biography of the driven workaholic Curtis who, by his own estimation, never slept more than a few hours a week. Egan’s drive seems no less powerful as he describes the complicated journeys, the endless agonizing travel, the never-ending scramble for funding, and the crushing disappointments in Curtis’s life.
The end product of the 20-book set, containing more than 2,200 original photographs, took thirty years to complete. During the project Curtis made about fifty thousand negatives, some as large as fourteen by seventeen inches, ten thousand wax cylinder recordings of Native languages and music, wrote or edited nearly 4,000 pages of text, and produced a motion picture.
In 1927 Curtis appeared before a judge during a hearing prompted by his ex-wife, in a suit for non-payment of child support. He testified that he had no funds, no business, worked for nothing, was the victim of a poor business deal with J.P. Morgan, hadn’t reached half his subscription goal, and that he would not receive any money when the project was completed. An astonished judge, amazed that anyone would subject themselves to such craziness, dismissed the case with no finding of guilt on Curtis’s part.
Egan, at first glance, might be also deemed slightly crazy for trying to make sense of this massive amount of information and putting it into words. But he does a fantastic job, keeping the reader interested and the details crystal clear. The photographs, while suffering from poor reproduction, hint at the artistry in their creation. His research is impeccable and his prose is both educational and entertaining. One can’t help but cheer Curtis on and to root for his eventual triumph. That doesn’t happen and empathy for his plight is just as riveting.
This is a great book and should not be missed. The author makes it an enjoyable read with each chapter providing a lesson in diligence.
Schuyler T Wallace
Author of TIN LIZARD TALES