Monday, October 8, 2012

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 10/9/2012
Hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780618969029

How a lone man’s epic obsession led to one of America’s greatest cultural treasures: Prizewinning writer Timothy Egan tells the riveting, cinematic story behind the most famous photographs in Native American history — and the driven, brilliant man who made them.
Edward Curtis was charismatic, handsome, a passionate mountaineer, and a famous photographer, the Annie Leibovitz of his time. He moved in rarefied circles, a friend to presidents, vaudeville stars, leading thinkers. And he was thirty-two years old in 1900 when he gave it all up to pursue his Great Idea: to capture on film the continent’s original inhabitants before the old ways disappeared.
An Indiana Jones with a camera, Curtis spent the next three decades traveling from the Havasupai at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the Acoma on a high mesa in New Mexico to the Salish in the rugged Northwest rain forest, documenting the stories and rituals of more than eighty tribes. It took tremendous perseverance — ten years alone to persuade the Hopi to allow him into their Snake Dance ceremony. And the undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate. Eventually Curtis took more than 40,000 photographs, preserved 10,000 audio recordings, and is credited with making the first narrative documentary film. In the process, the charming rogue with the grade school education created the most definitive archive of the American Indian.
His most powerful backer was Theodore Roosevelt, and his patron was J. P. Morgan. Despite the friends in high places, he was always broke and often disparaged as an upstart in pursuit of an impossible dream. He completed his masterwork in 1930, when he published the last of the twenty volumes. A nation in the grips of the Depression ignored it. But today rare Curtis photogravures bring high prices at auction, and he is hailed as a visionary. In the end he fulfilled his promise: He made the Indians live forever.

My Thoughts:

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan is a biography of photographer Edward Curtis (1868–1952), who, after 1896, began to devote his life to photographing all of the Native American tribes, much to the detriment of his portrait photography studio and his marriage. Curtis felt that the Native American's way of life and perhaps the people themselves were heading toward extinction and he wanted to capture images of them in native garb and showcasing their way of life before that happened.

Backed by President Theodore Roosevelt, Curtis proposed a monumental project to  J.P. Morgan: financing the fieldwork needed to publish a 20 volume set of photographs of Native American tribes. He received Morgan's backing and financial support of the project, but in the negotiations he did not take any compensation for his time.

Curtis spent the next 30 years living with the tribes he was studying and photographing, mostly during the summer months. Then he would spend months trying to drum up support of his endeavor from other sources and trying to find supporters who would commit to buying volumes of his project before publication.

Curtis not only took over 40,000 photographs, but also made over 10,000 audio recording of languages and songs. While the final 20-volume set of The North American Indian  was published to critical acclaim, it left Curtis destitute. Eventually the estate of J.P. Morgan obtained all the rights to his photographs and plates and sold them for only $1000 during the depression. Today, Curtis's photographs of Native Americans are extremely valuable.

I really enjoyed Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher. It is a fascinating look at a man who had a vision and risked everything for it. While chronicling Curtis's life as of a man with a passionate vision, Egan also gives credit to others who helped Curtis fulfill his dream, often under dangerous conditions. Additionally, Egan includes numerous copies of Curtis's photographs in the text, as well as a list of sources, photo credits, and an index. All in all, Egan did a commendable job setting this biography in the historical time and place while detailing the events in Curtis's life. 

Very Highly Recommended - especially for those interested in Western history during the early 1900's and those interested in the history of photographers. 

TIMOTHY EGAN is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and the author of six books, most recently The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and the Washington State Book Award. His previous books include The Worst Hard Time, which won a National Book Award and was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice. He is an online op-ed columnist for the New York Times, writing his "Opinionator" feature once a week.He is a third-generation Westerner and lives in Seattle.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy Kindle edition was courtesy of the publisher and Netgalley for review purposes.

First Picture: 1896
The last Indian of Seattle lived in a shack down among the greased piers and coal bunkers of the new city, on what was then called West Street, her hovel in the grip of Puget Sound, off plumb in a rise above the tidal flats. The cabin was two rooms, cloaked in a chipped jacket of clapboards, damp inside. Shantytown was the unofficial name for this part of the city, and if you wanted to dump a bucket of cooking oil or a rusted stove or a body, this was the place to do it. It smelled of viscera, sewage and raw industry, and only when a strong breeze huffed in from the Pacific did people onshore get a brief, briny reprieve from the residual odors of their labor.
   The city was named for the old woman’s father, though the founders had trouble pronouncing See-ahlsh, a kind of guttural grunt to the ears of the midwesterners freshly settled at the far edge of the continent. Nor could they fathom how to properly say Kick-is-om-lo, his daughter. So the seaport became Seattle, much more melodic, and the eccentric Indian woman was renamed Princess Angeline, the oldest and last surviving child of the chief of the Duwamish and Suquamish. Seattle died in 1866; had the residents of the village on Elliott Bay followed the custom of his people, they would have been forbidden to speak his name for at least a year after his death. As it was, his spirit was insulted hourly, at the least, on every day of that first year. “Princess” was used in condescension, mostly. How could this dirty, toothless wretch living amid the garbage be royalty? How could this tiny beggar in calico, bent by time, this clam digger who sold bivalves door to door, this laundress who scrubbed clothes on the rocks, be a princess?
   “The old crone” was a common term for Angeline.
   “Ragged remnant of royalty” was a more fanciful description. She was famous for her ugliness. Nearly blind, her eyes a quarter-rise slit without noticeable lashes. Said to have a single tooth, which she used to clamp a pipe. A face often compared to a washrag. The living mummy of Princess Angeline was a tourist draw, lured out for the amusement of visiting dignitaries. When she met Benjamin Harrison, the shaggy-bearded twenty-third president of the United States, during his 1891 trip to Puget Sound, the native extended a withered hand and shouted “Kla-how-ya,” a traditional greeting. Though she clearly knew many English phrases, she refused to speak the language of the new residents.
   “Nika halo cumtuv,” her contemporaries quoted her as saying. “I cannot understand.”
   Angeline was nearly alone in using words that had clung like angel hair to the forested hills above the bay for centuries. Lushootseed, the Coast Salish dialect, was her native tongue, once spoken by about eight thousand people who lived all around the inland sea, their hamlets holding to the higher ground near streams that delivered the tyee, also called the Chinook or king salmon, to the doorsteps of their big-boned timber lodges. “Angeline came to our house shortly before her death,” a granddaughter of one of the city’s founders remembered. “She sat on a stool and spoke in native tongue. We forgot her ugliness and her grumpiness and realized as never before the tragedy of her life and that of all Indians.”
   They could appreciate the tragedy, of course, in an abstract, vaguely sympathetic way, because they had no doubt that Indians would soon disappear from what would become the largest city on the continent named for a Native American. Well before the twentieth century dawned, there was a rush to the past tense in a country with plenty of real, live indigenous people in its midst. Angeline, by the terms of the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, was not even allowed to reside in town; the pact said the Duwamish and Suquamish had to leave, get out of sight, move across the bay to a sliver of rocky ground set aside for the aborigines. The bands who had lived by the rivers that drained the Cascade Mountains gave up two million acres for a small cash settlement, one blanket and four and a half yards of cloth per person. Eleven years later, Seattle passed a law making it a crime for anyone to harbor an Indian within the city limits.
   Angeline ignored the treaty and the ordinance. She refused to move; she had no desire to live among the family clans and their feuds on the speck of reservation land that looked back at the rising sun. The Boston Men, as older Indians called the wave of Anglos from that distant port, allowed tiny Angeline to stay put — a free-to-roam sovereign outcast in the land of her ancestors. She was harmless, after all: a quaint, colorful connection to a vanquished past. Poor broken Angeline. Is she still here, in that dreadful shack? God, what a piteous sight.  opening

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