How a lone mans epic obsession led to one of Americas greatest cultural treasures: Prizewinning writer Timothy Egan tells the riveting, cinematic story behind the most famous photographs in Native American history - and the driven, brilliant man who made them.
Edward Curtis was charismatic, handsome, a passionate mountaineer, and a famous photographer, the Annie Leibovitz of his time. He moved in rarefied circles, a friend to presidents, vaudeville stars, leading thinkers. And he was thirty-two years old in 1900 when he gave it all up to pursue his Great Idea: to capture on film the continents original inhabitants before the old ways disappeared.
An Indiana Jones with a camera, Curtis spent the next three decades traveling from the Havasupai at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the Acoma on a high mesa in New Mexico to the Salish in the rugged Northwest rain forest, documenting the stories and rituals of more than eighty tribes. It took tremendous perseverance - ten years alone to persuade the Hopi to allow him into their Snake Dance ceremony. And the undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate. Eventually Curtis took more than 40,000 photographs, preserved 10,000 audio recordings, and 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.
His most powerful backer was Theodore Roosevelt, and his patron was J. P. Morgan. Despite the friends in high places, he was always broke and often disparaged as an upstart in pursuit of an impossible dream. He completed his masterwork in 1930, when he published the last of the twenty volumes. A nation in the grips of the Depression ignored it. But today rare Curtis photogravures bring high prices at auction, and he is hailed as a visionary. In the end he fulfilled his promise: He made the Indians live forever.
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. Edward Curtis was a passionate photographer who moved in society's high circles until he gave it all up to capture 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. Egan's history of this bold and original man is masterful, moving and important - he does for Curtis what Curtis did for Native Americans: makes the man real. (Reviewed by Jo Perry).
Starred Review. Egan portrays the dwindling tribes, their sacred rites, customs, and daily lives, and captures a larger-than-life cast. With a reporter’s eye for detail, Egan delivers a gracefully written biography and adventure story.
Lucent prose illuminates a man obscured for years in history's shadows.
Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic
In this hauntingly beautiful book, Egan brings Curtis to life as vividly and with as much depth, heart and understanding as Curtis himself put into his timeless portraits. This is a story for the ages.
Recent Reader Reviews
Rated of 5
by CarolK Breathtaking historical non-fiction Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis was such an interesting read for me on many levels. There's the history of Seattle, the culture of its American Indian Tribes, the beauty of the Cascades... Read More
Edward Curtis's Photography Techniques and the Preservation of a Way of Life
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 prints run off, deeper portions hold more ink and so the print that results is one that is an accurate reproduction of the original. For each sepia print that Curtis made using this process, the corresponding copper plate had to be cleaned and re-inked. Some of his prints were also...
A decade ago Philip Connors left work as an editor at the Wall Street Journal and talked his way into a job as one of the last fire lookouts in America. Fire Season is Connors's remarkable reflection on work, our place in the wild, and the charms of solitude.
These are 2 of the 5 readalike suggestions for Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher. Members have full access to all readalikes. If you are a member, please login. To find out more about membership, click here.
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...