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Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis - Timothy Egan “ ‘It is doubtful in the history of the world that any people ever were brought so suddenly to such a radical change in their manner of living,’ Curtis wrote in his volume that explained the tribe (of Lakota/Sioux). ‘The enforced change in diet alone so undermined them physically that they became an easy prey to every ill.’ When Curtis asked the Sioux if there was anything he could bring them in the future, they answered with a single word: food. The Dakota plains, so full of buffalo during summer days past, were a ghost prairie in 1907 – an empty pantry. And at Pine Ridge (reservation) Curtis saw a stark replay of what had motivated the Sioux to go to war back in 1876. By treaty, they had been promised nearly all of modern South Dakota, and hunting access to 22 million acres in eastern Montana and North Dakota. But the treaty lasted no longer than any other . . . Curtis could not find a buffalo to feed the Sioux if he used every dollar of J.P. Morgan’s money. (p.168, 169)


Edward Curtis spent 30 years photographing and writing (with the help of a talented but small and barely paid staff) 20 volumes documenting the traditional cultures, lives and languages of North American Indians, titled simply The North American Indian. He also made a film. Personally documenting, as in living with each tribe long enough to record their versions of their stories, an endeavor inspired by a trip to the Blackfeet Nation in 1900.

Curtis was a master photographer and the emphasis is visual, so it’s a real shame that the reproductions in Egan's book are lousy (which is why it gets 4 and not 5 stars). Egan’s writing, however, is stellar. His style makes the most of an incredible life story without slighting the efforts of a handful of essential colleagues and friends, or the damage to Curtis’s marriage. To start his wife was a beloved and involved partner, but as the ordeal (and the project was an ongoing ordeal) consumed him, she was left behind of necessity to raise their children and run the photo studio that provided the family’s income, all without one word of credit in those 20 volumes, perhaps because she divorced him long before their completion. He routinely wrote to his children, took them along when he could, and they remained devoted to him.

He enjoyed about a decade of international notoriety and celebrity, but he worked for love and not money. He was never paid a dime for his 30-year endeavor, a concession made to secure J.P. Morgan’s funding, which was hardly enough to cover expenses. Among the more entertaining passages in Egan’s account is Morgan’s sadistic approach to Curtis’s enthusiastic but painstakingly reasoned appeal. Morgan was maybe the richest man in the world and surely the stingiest, and he was ugly, the latter on account of an extreme case of rhinophyma that had turned his nose into a bright purple bulb.

Many wealthy individuals and institutions, the Smithsonian for one, had already refused to finance the North American Indian project, mostly on the grounds that Curtis lacked credentials. He was barely a teenager when his formal education was cut short so he could work to support his family, but he wound up earning a decent living and an outstanding reputation as a portrait photographer. He was also brilliantly self-taught on a variety of subjects and ranked among the most intrepid explorers, known for leading expeditions and saving lives on Mount Rainier, which happened to be in his back yard. Regardless, scholars balked at the very idea of being upstaged by his explorations and findings, which was likely since “most everything scholarly on the subject was tedious, if not damn near impossible to read.” An important advocate agreed with Curtis about that – President Theodore Roosevelt. But T.R.’s endorsement meant little to J.P; the men hated each other. Morgan eventually granted Curtis an audience, mostly, it seemed, to enjoy making him beg.

“Curtis had barely spoken his first words when Morgan interrupted him with a dismissive wave of his hand. ‘Mr. Curtis, there are many demands of me for financial assistance.’ What Morgan desired was to have that which no one else could possess.(p.112)

Curtis emphasized the legacy the work would become for Morgan but Morgan remained unmoved; the sooner Indians were gone the better, in his opinion. Curtis, as always, persisted. He began submitting photographs for review in hopes they’d prove to be worth a thousand words, and as it happened one photo made all the difference -- the portrait of a beautiful Mojave girl, an adolescent named Mosa. Morgan wanted more like it, because more than anything – whether in the flesh or in art -- he enjoyed acquiring beautiful young women. Even so, he refused to provide more than minimal funding and “if there was ever a sliver of a doubt that Curtis had worked for nothing in order to complete ‘the only worthwhile thing’ in his life, the House of Morgan removed that doubt when it took from Curtis the remaining ownership (the copyright) of his masterwork.” (p. 294)

Morgan Money To Keep Indians From Oblivion! the headlines read. Laughably ironic, since his railroad money was funding their decimation.

It happens that I just read The New York Times review, and though I love the Times and count on its recommendations, I didn’t much like its take on this book. The reviewer shares and expresses the standard criticism of Curtis's and Egan’s accounts as follows:
As gorgeous and useful as much of his work remains, the project as Curtis conceived it was a fool’s errand. He hurried to salvage scraps of pristine Indian culture, because, he said, “There won’t be anything left of them in a few generations, and it’s a tragedy.” He had been infected with the white American fantasy that Indians were the “Vanishing Race,” to use the title of the opening image of the entire series. It depicts a line of Navajos, barely more than silhouettes, riding away from the camera and into a dark oblivion.
The vanishing Indian was an old chestnut; it had motivated Curtis’s artistic forebear, the painter George Catlin, back in the 1830s. Curtis updated it with a new medium and shades of turn-of-the-century anti-modernism. Though Mr. Egan makes him out to be an unsung advocate for Indians, Curtis’s pictures actually supported the idea that Indians must inevitably melt away in the heat of modernity. These images give no hint of the continuing effort by the federal government and white settlers to steal Indians’ land and livelihood. (from the New York Times book review, 11-11-12)


As I see it, that’s just wrong, or at least misguided. Egan gives ample evidence that Curtis noted changes and addressed injustices within the text of the 20 volumes and elsewhere. My opening excerpt is one example. Another is Curtis’s account of Little Big Horn – he was the first to tell that story from an Indian perspective, for which he encountered no end of grief. He also shared heartbreaking stories of injustices suffered by an Indian colleague negotiating dual identities as an assimilated individual devoted to his native culture.

But the point of Curtis’s work is this: documentation of Indian cultures before whites rushed in, and at that he succeeded as no one else did or even tried to, and call it “vanishing” or what you will – those cultures were being systematically eradicated.

Interest in Curtis vanished during the Depression, and for decades he was barely acknowledged. About 200 complete sets of The North American Indian were printed (only one of which went to Curtis), and Egan does a remarkable job tracking their whereabouts over the years as well as Curtis’s perpetual economic and psychological struggles. The telling ends with contemporary takes on the work; the Native American rights movement of the 1970s revived interest and increased the dollar value, and several tribes appreciated and appropriated it. The Hopi, for example, relied on a volume devoted to them to restore their native language. Curtis lived to be an old man, but he died in 1952 and did not profit from the accolades.

In 2009 a 20-volume set sold for $1.8 million, but:

“When the final volume of the Indian work had been printed in 1930, Curtis faced the only thing worse than a bad review: silence. He longed for a word or two from the papers that had once given full pages to him . . . When he died The New York Times ran an obituary of 76 words and never directly mentioned The North American Indian . . .said nothing of the languages he recorded and preserved, the biographies he wrote of Indians still alive, the groundbreaking work he did in cinema.” (p. 298)

A few years later, however, the Times was among the first to launch a lucrative business selling “limited edition” lithographs of what had become commonly known as “Curtis pictures.”

A digital copy of The North American Indian can now be viewed in entirety online at http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/