Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/9/2012
A 1910 picture opera The Story of a Vanishing Race by Edward Curtis sold out twice at Carnegie Hall. New York’s elite came to listen to Curtis speak about American Indian culture, while a magic lantern dissolved tinted slides in “narrative motion” and an orchestra played music inspired by native chants and songs.
Curtis was driven by urgency to capture Chief Joseph, Geronimo and Red Hawk in his novel interpretive presentation, which drew standing ovations and rave reviews.
“He let these dead warriors glare at the Carnegie crowd, a bit of psychic revenge,” writes journalist Timothy Egan in a new biography Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.
Egan’s provocative subject, a premier portrait photographer at the turn of the last century, sought to show what America would lose within a generation. Once commissioned to snap photos of the wedding of Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Curtis was first inspired to take indigenous portraits by the last living Indian in Seattle, Angeline. The city itself was named for the aging woman’s father, the chief of the Duwamish and Suquamish.
“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.”
The Clam Digger and The Mussel Gatherer were the photographic start of an ambitious ethnographic project that would come under the patronage of J.P. Morgan and span 30 years. His completed 20-volume masterpiece, The North American Indian, would be acclaimed as an authentic and artistic record of native peoples.
Egan writes vividly of Curtis trekking the expanses of unspoiled American geography to capture images that were true to the character of his native subjects. His expeditions earned him a reputation as an expert climber with a deep knowledge of the high country. His curiosity revealed the spiritual nature of Indian societies who valued the sacred in every rock, animal or tree. Curtis specialized in unique sepia tones and tints and his printing and finishing became artistic yardsticks copied by students and admirers.
“He became a close observer: how the color of the land would change subtly in shifting light, the moments in midmorning when the fog lifted, or breaks in the afternoon between rain showers, when he could see the spectrum of the rainbow in a single drop held by a rhododendron leaf.”
According to Egan, Curtis lamented the passing of an old patriarch and with him a life’s store of priceless culture that could never be replaced. The worst sin came by way of government agents and missionaries who sought to wash away the identity of native peoples. No wonder many Indians distrusted intruders asking of their sacred rituals and ways. In his first encounters with them in the White Mountains of Arizona, Apache tribal medicine men encouraged others to shun Curtis.
“Apache threw dirt at his camera, charged him on horseback, misled him, threatened him, cursed him, ignored him and laughed at him.”
Anthropologists who never dipped a hand in the field work saw the Apache as a savage with no moral code, but Curtis was determined to capture their rich inner lives. He persisted and found some light in the prankish jokesters among the Apache and their “gut-busting laugh sessions.”
When he returned to the White Mountain reservation on a subsequent trip in 1906, he was armed with a paid crew of writers and scholars and technicians who would help him document the Athapaskan speakers’ language, recipes, songs and mescal gathering culture. His photographic subjects would include Apache Girl, Before the Storm, Sacred Buckskin, The Pool—Apache, Apache Babe, Escadi, and Apache Medicine Man.
Curtis published the first two volumes of The North American Indian in late 1907 and early 1908 to deafening acclaim. The camera and field work invested in the complete set would equal that of John James Audubon and George Catlin. The volumes would be referenced by later generations of American Indians for not just photographs, but also for myths, stories, alphabets and chants once thought lost.
“At night, in his dreams, he revisited the Hopi and Apache, the Sky City of Acoma, the Grand Canyon cellar of the Havasupai and the sublime isolation of Nunivak Island. Had he really been to these places?”
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan is a highly worthwhile read about the life of Edward Curtis and his intrepid work capturing the remnants of American Indian culture in photographs.
Category: Nonfiction, Biography