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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis Kindle Edition
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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.
The life and times of “fanatical” (self described) artists like Edward Curtis are rarely full of fulfilling, float you on air happiness. Yet, his life had many interactions and endorsements by the day’s rich and famous (Teddy Roosevelt and J. Pierpont Morgan (to name two - not that this makes any difference in terms of Curtis's immortal contributions).
A man who attempted to capture the remnants of an ever encroaching genocide of the remaining inhabitants of the western tribes of Native Americans is a noble story. And noble is the way Egan tells it. Yet, it leaves you (the trajectory of Curtis’s life) unfulfilled…as the life stories of so many artists do.
How Egan finds these tales and has the uncanny ability to weave story in and around the real-life characters he portrays – is – well – a mysterious literary talent that I’m unsure if even he could describe it adequately. The book, story, prose, research and Egan’s writing just make you salivate for the next page.
This is an unequivocal FIVE STAR work (which I don’t attribute to most literature I read). It is a treasure – just as the life of Edward Curtis and his enduring work was/is. I am really glad I read this book. You will be too.
I am now on to my 7th Egan book in the past three weeks (which I NEVER do); The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became An American Hero (2016).
You simply CANNOT understand the American West without Reading Timothy Egan…PERIOD.
had a passion for the camera he got as a boy,
turned into a great portrait photographer and,
upon moving west, saw that the natives of this
continent were nearly wiped out. Agonizing, he
became obsessive about trying to record their
lives and ways with his camera, then too their
voices and rites with wax recording cylinders
for sound, in a rush before the last natives
This book so touched me that I am giving
a report on it to my neighbors in our retirement
Friends with Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford
Pinchot, Curtis recorded his passion --and our
losses-- in heart-warming and heart-aching
photos with titles to identify the subjects.
See the photos he took in, at least, the
5" X 8" (not quality, but visible & complete)
book: Edward S. Curtis, THE NORTH
AMERICAN INDIAN, THE COMPLETE
PORTFOLIOS published by Taschen, 2001.
It helped me understand why Curtis was in
such great demand as a portrait pho-
tographer and confirmed the history of
Europeans making this continent their own.
Now I ponder: How long will we who now
live here will be able to hold this land for our
heirs? When will we succumb and to whom
as did the native Americans who preceded
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