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Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis Paperback – August 6, 2013
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"Insightful and entetaining . . . Egan's excellent book stands as a fitting tribute to an American original who fought for a people with his camera and his art." -- Los Angeles Times
"[A] captivating tribute to a treasured American and the treasures he created."-- Dallas Morning News
From the Back Cover
A Best Book of the Year
Christian Science Monitor, Amazon.com, Publishers Weekly
A vivid exploration of one man's lifelong obsession with an idea . . . Egans spirited biography might just bring [Curtis] the recognition that eluded him in life. Washington Post
Edward Curtis was charismatic, handsome, a passionate mountaineer, and a famous portrait photographer, the Annie Leibovitz of his time. He moved in rarefied circles, a friend to presidents, vaudeville stars, leading thinkers. But when he was thirty-two years old, in 1900, he gave it all up to pursue his Great Idea: to capture on film the continents original inhabitants before the old ways disappeared.
Curtis spent the next three decades documenting the stories and rituals of more than eighty North American tribes. It took tremendous perseverance ten years alone to persuade the Hopi to allow him to observe their Snake Dance ceremony. And the undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate. Curtis would amass more than 40,000 photographs and 10,000 audio recordings, and he is credited with making the first narrative documentary film. In the process, the charming rogue with the grade school education created the most definitive archive of the American Indian.
A darn good yarn. Egan is a muscular storyteller and his book is a rollicking page-turner with a colorfully drawn hero. San Francisco Chronicle
"A riveting biography of an American original." Boston Globe
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"Some reviews of the Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher focus on Curtis, who is indeed a brilliant and poignantly ignored star. However, I felt that as you portrayed him, Curtis would have been most touched with your treatment of his respect and interactions with the Tribal peoples. He never imagines himself anything but a white man; yet in this role, he does not seem to embrace the sense of superiority that plagues the white soul. The chapter “The Most Remarkable Man” is a poignant memorial both to Curtis and Alexander Upshaw. Without undue sentimentalism or judgment, both you and Curtis have taken the reader through a journey that will never be possible again and we are painfully conscious of what has been lost. This is not to say that Curtis himself is not an exceptional man and artist, and for this reason alone, the book has significant value. The blindness of society to properly honor his work, as well as the importance of the subject, is disheartening but remarkably common, unfortunately. You have celebrated his efforts to create a grand and beautiful tome depicting these strong and complex people and cultures through photographs, recordings of their voices and songs, notation of their languages and descriptions of the their spiritual practices."
This book in multiple ways affected me deeply. I highly recommend it.
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.
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Edward Curtis was a photographer in the very early days of photography.Read more