"Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis" by Timothy Egan

  • Posted on: 20 April 2013
  • By: TedG

Visionary: (1) Characterized by vision or foresight. (4) Not practicable; utopian.

These are two of the definitions given in my American Heritage Dictionary. It is odd that a word filled with such intangible greatness can also refer to very measurable paucity. It is perhaps the equivalent of bipolarity –– fantastic heights matched by debilitating lows.

In some ways, this is an apt description of Edward Curtis’s life. The rising star of Seattle society at the turn of the 20th century was a photographer without equal, a maker of art whose eye and skill were sought after by all the elite who wished to record their visage for posterity. Then, a chance encounter on Mt. Rainier, in which Curtis helped a lost party of climbers find their off the mountain, led to the conception of a grand idea to record on film and in words the fast-fading cultures of the North American Indians. It was an idea nurtured by no less than George Bird Grinnell and Theodore Roosevelt, and financed by J. P. Morgan, but the project that was lauded by newspapers and dignitaries across the country and around the world, consumed 30 years and every last material possession Curtis owned. As with so many biographies of artists, writers, and activists, Curtis’s ends with the words “penniless and alone.” It is a heartbreaking coda for a life lived so fully and for a talent given so freely to the completion of a project of legendary historical import. This is the story Timothy Egan tells in his superbly written biography of Edward S. Curtis, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher. It is a fascinating story of rising from humble beginnings to becoming a self-made man through chance moments and undeniable talent.

Edward Curtis was born in Whitewater, Wisconsin, raised in Le Sueur, Minnesota, and moved with his parents and three siblings to the Puget Sound region in 1887 when the Midwest was proving to be a dead end for a struggling preacher who was “trying to turn the ground for food or a soul for Jesus.” Curtis dropped out of school after sixth grade to help provide food and a place his family to live. Curtis first took a chance on a dream when he moved across the Sound to Seattle in 1891, in response to an ad for a photography studio looking for a partner. He was a natural, and his wealth and fame grew. One day, he sees “Angeline,” an old woman living in a squalid shack near Puget Sound, walking the shoreline. She is the daughter of Chief See-ahlsh (Anglicized to “Seattle”), but she is forbidden by law to live in the city named after her father. She is both despised by the citizenry and used as a tourist attraction. But in her Edward Curtis sees history walking in stark contrast to the city growing up around her.

There against the deep waters of Puget Sound, there with the snow-mantled Olympic Mountains framed behind her, there with the growl of earth-digging machines and the snorts of steamships and loading crews and the clatter of streetcars and trolleys –– with all of that, Curtis saw a moment from a time before any white man had looked upon these shores. He saw a person and nature, one and the same in his mind, as they belonged. A frozen image of a lost time: he must take that picture before she passed.

After a time, Curtis did take that picture, convincing Angeline to sit for a portrait for which he paid her $1.00. From this experience, Curtis learns that what crosses cultural boundaries and language barriers is kindness, respect, and an equal exchange –– to give as well as to receive.

Two years later, while hiking on Mt. Rainier, Curtis comes across a hiking party that has lost their way. He invites them into his camp for the night, and then guides them down the mountain the next day. Later, he is asked by one of the members of that party –– C. Hart Merriam, co-founder of the National Geographic Society and director of the U.S. Biological Survey –– to join a scientific expedition to the Alaska Territory as the official photographer. It is a life-changing experience, and his grand idea is hatched soon after that in conversations with another member of that lost hiking party, George Bird Grinnell, found of the Audubon Society and editor of Field and Stream magazine. Grinnell shares Curtis’s philosophy of treating native people as equals, of coming into their society as an observer, not to make demands or push them around. This philosophy will guide Curtis for the next 30 years as he creates the 20-volume masterpiece, The North American Indian.

Egan’s storytelling is phenomenal. His subject needs no decoration; Curtis lived, in the words on the book jacket, as “an Indiana Jones with a camera.” But even with such rich material, Egan is masterful in creating a sense of excitement and in crafting a rich tapestry of images in the reader’s mind. There are so few books that I sit and read for pages on-end, but this book held my attention as so few have in recent months. This is an amazing story, with startling revelations about moments in American history that have been incorrectly portrayed for more than a century. It also tells the story of Indian dispossession and assimilation, and the contradictory ways in which those policies were carried out, but it does so in the context of how Curtis’s grand idea is a race against time. Native cultures are fading as quickly, if not faster, than Curtis can preserve them to the page.

As the project continues into the 1920s, the story becomes more than a little dispiriting. Curtis is disparaged by the institutions and people who are threatened by this uneducated man’s anthropological prowess. Also, his grand idea is losing ground to changing social interests, and completion of the project is threatened by a lack of money. In the end, it is Curtis’s single-minded pursuit, his sense of duty to complete that which he has started, that drives him deep into debt. He is estranged from his brother and he loses his wife, his savings, his photography business, and in the end, the rights to his life’s work that he selflessly brought to completion in 1929. For all the cutting-edge artistry, keen insights, unprecedented access, and big-named support he had, Curtis dies in 1952, at the age of 84, penniless and alone in a small apartment in Los Angeles, cared for by one of his daughters who lived nearby.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is an incredible story of vision, adventure, commitment, and loss. It is a unique glimpse into native America as 20th century Manifest Destiny drove it to the edges of society. It is a book I recommend to anyone.


The photographs from all 20 volumes of The North American Indian can be found on the Library of Congress website, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/award98/ienhtml/, and the photographs and full text can be found at http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/.