Sometime in early 1896, a young Seattle photographer named Edward Sherriff Curtis, already well known for his polished studio portraits of local civic leaders and business tycoons, decided to challenge himself and photograph a very different kind of subject. He chose “Princess Angeline,” aka Kick-is-om-lo, the sole surviving child of the great Duwamish-Suquamish chief for whom the city of Seattle was named. Roughly 80 years old at the time, Angeline lived in a dilapidated shack on the shores of Puget Sound, eking out a marginal existence by washing other people’s laundry for coins. She was regarded as “the last Indian of Seattle,” and Curtis thought she might make an unusual model for an afternoon’s sitting.
The resulting portraits went on to inspire one of the most ambitious and comprehensive documentary projects in the history of American photography. Impressed by Angeline’s dignity and quiet power, Curtis soon began seeking out members of other Northwestern tribes to record on film. And within a few years, he had conceived what Timothy Egan, in “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” calls his Big Idea”: “to photograph all intact Indian communities left in North America, to capture the essence of their lives before that essence disappeared.”
Egan’s account of Curtis’s life is not so much a traditional biography as a vivid exploration of one man’s lifelong obsession with an idea. “The North American Indian,” Curtis’s massive, 20-volume work, ended up consuming the photographer for more than three decades, in the process nearly destroying him both physically and financially. Granted, Curtis’s life may not have been as “epic” as Egan indicates in his subtitle, but it was an eventful journey. More important, it left a significant legacy: Curtis’s magnum opus — consisting of 40,000 photographs, 10,000 recorded songs, 75 language glossaries, and transcriptions of countless myths, rituals and stories — is now regarded as a monument of American cultural achievement.
Not that the project was uncontroversial. By the time Curtis’s work got underway, Native American culture was already in steep decline. Indian populations were dwindling nationwide, and many tribes, corralled into squalid reservations far from their native lands, were legally forbidden to practice their most sacred religious rituals. As a result, Curtis often had to fudge details — and technically break the law — to generate the images he wanted. He was not above paying modernized Indians to dress up in disused bearskin robes to stage long-dormant traditional ceremonies. He once even retouched a photo of a Plains Indian to erase a very inconvenient alarm clock. Egan acknowledges these dubious practices and forgives them, perhaps a little too readily: “Curtis,” he writes, “was a documentarian only of a certain kind of life.”
To record that certain kind of life, Curtis was also willing to make all manner of personal sacrifices, often with little official recognition to show for it. The first volumes of the work, financed largely with loans from friends, did earn ecstatic reviews and popular acclaim, but academic acceptance was slow in coming. Curtis, after all, was just an uneducated picture-taker, not a trained Indian expert, so many institutions such as the Smithsonian refused him any backing. Curtis persuaded J.P. Morgan to make a $75,000seed investment in the project (and the Morgan heirs ultimately put up $2.5 million), but in exchange, the photographer had to work for free, and he was eventually forced to surrender all rights to the finished product.
In the meantime, he and an ever-dwindling staff of helpers labored in the field for months on end, working with little sleep and few creature comforts. Curtis had to endure periods of deep depression and virtual penury; his wife divorced him and once had him arrested for non-payment of alimony. By the time the last two volumes of the series appeared in 1930, the world seemed to have forgotten all about Curtis and his Big Idea. The completed work met with virtual silence in both the academic and popular press.
“Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher” lacks the driving narrative of Egan’s earlier books about natural disasters in the American West. Perhaps to compensate, he adopts a brassy colloquialism in this book that can sometimes be off-putting. (Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think sentences like “Blah, blah, blah. Who cares?” and “He had no time for this crap” belong in a work like this.) But Curtis, who died in poverty and obscurity in 1952, qualifies as a Western desperado of a type we don’t often hear about. Egan’s spirited biography might just bring him the recognition that eluded him in life.
SHORT NIGHTS OF THE
The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis
By Timothy Egan
Harcourt Mifflin Harcourt
370 pp. $28