Edward Curtis's Photography Techniques and the Preservation of a Way of Life: Background information when reading Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher

The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis

by Timothy Egan

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Oct 2012, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2013, 384 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

Buy This Book

About this Book

Beyond the Book:
Edward Curtis's Photography Techniques and the Preservation of a Way of Life

Print Review

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 hand-colored.

Princess Angeline Curtis also created images using a process called goldtone, which he adopted and refined to such an extent that he called them "Curt-Tone" images. Unlike other prints which are on paper, Curt-Tone images projected the negative of a film onto a glass sheet which was then treated with chemicals to capture and save the image permanently. Curtis described these images, which had warmth, depth and a translucent quality, as "full of life and [sparkling] like an opal." He traveled Native American lands for thirty years hauling the heavy glass plates that were needed for this process.

Curtis manipulated his images and adjusted them according to his vision. He removed tokens of contemporary life - such as an alarm clock in a Hopi residence - in order to present the life of indigenous Americans as it had been lived, not as it was when he documented it. Some have suggested that Curtis presented an idealized version of the native American but one could argue that he was providing a snapshot from an earlier time, recording Native cultures, not present-day "reality." He was conserving what was fast dying out. He made sure to photograph, as he did with Princess Angeline, his subjects in their traditional clothing performing activities that were traditional as well. Only one of the 40,000 photos shows a Native American man in "western" clothing.

The long-lost volumes of Curtis's The North American Indian are now accessible online courtesy of the Northwestern University Library. You can search by tribe or by volume: loc.gov. For more information on Curtis's techniques, go to edwardcurtisphotographer.com.

Some of Edward Curtis's orotones or Curt-tone images were featured on PBS's Antiques Roadshow. Click on the video below for a look:

Watch Appraisal: Edward Curtis Orotones, ca. 1908 on PBS. See more from Antiques Roadshow.

The haunting image of 'Princess' Angeline captured a poor Native American after whose father, the city of Seattle was named. Angeline was one of Edward Curtis's earliest Native American photography subjects.

Article by Jo Perry

This article was originally published in October 2012, and has been updated for the August 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This article is available to non-members for a limited time. You can also read these articles for free. For full access become a member today.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: New People
    New People
    by Danzy Senna
    Danzy Senna has spent virtually her entire writing career exploring the complicated intersections of...
  • Book Jacket: Hunger
    Hunger
    by Roxane Gay
    In this penetrating and fearless memoir, author Roxane Gay discusses her battle with body acceptance...
  • Book Jacket: The Black Witch
    The Black Witch
    by Laurie Forest
    In The Black Witch, Laurie Forest introduces her readers to an immersive fantasy world where ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

Cruel Beautiful World examines the intricate, infinitesimal distance between seduction and love, loyalty and duty.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Heart's Invisible Furies
    by John Boyne

    A sweeping, heartfelt saga set in Ireland from the author of The Boy In the Striped Pajamas.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Hame

Hame by Annalena McAfee

A rich, sultry novel about a young American fleeing a crumbling marriage for a remote Scottish island.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

A F Out O W

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.