Timothy Egan's robust biography of Edward Curtis is not only the record of a prophetic artist's life and work, it is a transfixing story of audacious achievement and massive commercial failure during a period of stunning cultural blindness and injustice. Curtis began his career as a society photographer, but is arguably best remembered for his work capturing the lives of Native Americans on film. Egan's portrait of Curtis, who produced an historic twenty-volume photographic and cultural record of America's native peoples, is a masterful and ironic double-exposure: Curtis's life comes into sharpest focus against the backdrop of indigenous America's fading world. As Native Americans and their cultures vanished, Curtis doggedly realized his project which itself was forgotten and almost permanently lost.
Beyond the Book
Edward Curtis, with the help of his assistants in his Seattle studio, produced photogravure prints - over 40,000 of the North American Indian alone. The elaborate process produced sepia pictures with soft glowing tones.
The photogravure process, which really took off in the late nineteenth century, is widely considered as elevating photography to an art form. The process involves three basic steps: capturing the subject on film; creating an etched copper plate of the captured image and running off prints from this etched copper plate. The copper plate that is used as the base for prints is etched at different depths depending on the amount of darkness in the picture. The result is that darker portions of a picture create deeper etches in the plate. When the plate is inked and...