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

Short Nights of the Shadow CatcherThis is an amazing account of the life of photographer Edward Curtis. It begins in 1866 in Seattle, where Princess Angeline is living in a 2 room damp shack down among the piers. She is the oldest and last surviving child of the chief of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes, and also the most famous person in Seattle, her image on china plates and other knickknacks sold to tourists of Puget Sound.

Seattle is also where Edward Sheriff Curtis runs a successful photography business. Curtis is sought out by politicians and wealthy patrons, but also trolley car drivers and sailors who have saved for a session in front of the camera.

Curtis eventually photographs Princess Angeline, first in a studio portrait, and then in Shantytown, where he captures her in her daily chores of digging clams and gathering mussels. Angeline tells of other Duwamish and Suquamish people living on the edge of the city and the Tulalip reservation to the north. He visits, even pays for access, and photographs them. This is the beginning of what becomes a lifelong endeavor of photographing all intact Indian communities left in North American before their way of life disappears.

This plan entails traveling the Southwest, the plains, the Rockies, the fjords of British Columbia and Washington State, northern California mountains and southern California desert, and the Arctic. Curtis gives up a successful photography studio in Seattle for this pursuit.

He is constantly broke and struggles to obtain backers as he continues documenting Native Americans as their numbers are plummeting. While America is laying down railroad lines and paving roads for automobiles, the Indians who wish to continue living as they always have, end up hiding from dominant ever encroaching culture (the government has banned many ceremonies and children are sent to boarding schools).

Even when Curtis presents his picture opera–Indians in hand-colored slides and film, accompanied by music–to sold out crowds at Carnegie Hall and Washington’s Belasco Theater, he still faces bankruptcy: a penniless state that follows him through the rest of his life.

When he completes Volume XX of The North American Indian in 1930, thirty years have passed since the onset of the project, and Curtis is sixty-one years old. Sadly, his book goes unnoticed after his death in 1952, but resurfaces in the 1970’s to great acclaim. The Curtis family set goes to the Rare Books Library at the University of Oregon, and a gallery devoted to the work of Curtis is in Seattle.

Thankfully, because of Edward Curtis’ steadfast dedication to record the Native American tribes’ way of life before its tragic demise, we have an immense photographic and written historical record. And because of Timothy Egan’s exhaustive research, we have a sense of what Edward Curtis went through to accomplish this great feat.

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