If only I had read Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis before my trip to Seattle this past June. The trip was wonderful but this book would have greatly enhanced the trip. There were many places I missed not knowing they existed. The$19 million dollar, 23,000 square foot cultural center of the Tulalip Indians would have been a place to visit. My road trip to Mount Ranier's Paradise would have been more meaningful. Hopefully, I'll visit this area again.
If you don't have time to read the long version of my comments, suffice it to say I loved this book and highly recommend it.
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 and Mount Rainier, the lure of the west of long ago. What makes this book shine is the story of the Shadow Catcher himself, Edward Curtis, a brilliant photographer, a man with a challenge that would haunt his soul and become the meaning and also the obsession of his life. His dream to record through images and word, a twenty volume set detailing the dying rituals, stories and culture of The North American Indian.
Timothy Egan excellently takes us on Curtis's three decade journey starting with his captivation at age 12 with his father's Civil War lens, an accident at age 22 that left him confined to bed for a year, his fascination with a 14x17 view camera which could hold "a slice of life on a a large-format glass-plate negative with such clarity it made people gasp". These are the beginnings of his life-long obsession with capturing what others could not. After Egan sets the big idea,in the year 1900 Curtis's story unfolds in chapters of time almost like the photograph stills he took. In 1900 Curtis boards The Great Northern Railroad to Indian land long forgotten by Americans. He lands in Browning, Montana, the land of the Blackfeet Nation and here the first step is taken, the first sketches, writings and photos. His plan to photograph all intact Indian communities left in North America, to capture the essence of their lives before that essence disappeared. Egan ends each chapter with a few images that are relevant to the text. These are stunning but left me wanting for more.
Much to think about in these pages. I've read other books that present the American Indian viewpoint on broken treaties and loss of their lands but the images here bring it home, sad and sorrowful, yet proud, strong and hopeful too. I was troubled, yet impressed by the persistence of Curtis's life long ambition to his project. I was amazed that a man who was once renowned, who was invited to photograph Theodore Roosevelt's children, who then became a friend and often guest of the President, whose dream was funded by "the lion of Wall Street", J.P. Morgan, who married a beautiful, smart woman, Clara, who bore him four children and was initially behind him; this same man several decades later died penniless, virtually alone, with his life's work unappreciated. He never knew how important his accomplishments would be. Was it all worth it in the end
In addition to Roosevelt and Morgan, Curtis 's life crossed with so many other colorful and interesting people. Belle Greener, the woman hired to oversee Morgan's library, journalist William E. Myers who wrote much of the copy for the Indian volumes, Frederick Hodge, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian, Edmond S. Meany, history professor, botanist who helped photograph the Sioux. His closest friend, Alexander Upshaw, a Crow Indian spent years roaming the countryside helping Curtis in his research. Upshaw died in an icy jail cell reportedly from pneumonia after a drinking binge, devastating Curtis. The Crow nation felt Upshaw was murdered, severely beaten by a group of white men after an argument and then dragged off to jail where he succumbed to his injuries.
In 1927 Curtis and his daughter Beth journey to Nome, traveling the 2,350 miles by sea. Curtis described Nome as "a dump. Once the largest city in Alaska with a population of fifteen thousand, it now had only a few hundred tired souls in what he describes as "a hand-me-down town" The Alaskan Eskimo was the subject of the last of the twenty volumes, the culmination of the dream. Again, at what price
Edward Curtis could have been a fine portrait photographer and wealthy man but at what cost to his own plan, his dream, his desires. There are many wonderful websites where you can view his photographs, and find further information about The North American Indian" I would suggest Northern University Digital Library Collection-Edward S. Curtis's North American Indian.