Seattle author Timothy Egan's powerful new biography "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher" tells the epic story of Edward Curtis, the Seattle-based photographer who made it his life's work to photograph Native Americans from tribes all over the West. Egan discusses his book Oct. 30 at Town Hall Seattle, and Nov. 1 at Eagle Harbor...
‘Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis’
by Timothy Egan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pp., $28
Timothy Egan’s powerful new book, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis,” starts in 1896, at a seminal point in Northwest history. That year marked the meeting of photographer Edward Curtis and the last surviving child of Chief Seattle, Princess Angeline.
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Angeline lived in squalor in a dilapidated shack over a pier on the tidal flats of Elliott Bay. To the 19th-century citizens of Seattle, she was a relic most famous for her “ugliness,” with a “face often compared to a dishrag.”
Boys would throw rocks at her, and though she was 90 at the time, she would throw them back. She was considered “the old crone,” mocked in a popular song: “For once he hit her with a stone, and she hit him back, and made him moan.”
But to then 28-year-old Edward Curtis, Angeline was “the perfect subject.” The owner of a downtown portrait studio, he saw a window to a lost culture in her aged face, and he paid her a dollar to pose. He chose to photograph her in her shack with her cane, rather than in his formal studio, and the result was a photo that forever changed the world.
“He was looking for the lethal glare she saved for the boys who threw rocks,” Egan writes. “He hoped to convey a face that had seen worlds change, forests leveled, tidelands filled, people crushed.” The picture Curtis took that day would make both subject and photographer famous, and would ultimately play an essential role in shifting how Native American culture was perceived.
Seattle writer Egan’s biography is indeed the life story of Curtis, but he also seeks to tell a larger arc about the changes of the American West, and the decimation of Native American culture. In picking Curtis, New York Times contributor and National Book Award winner Egan has chosen “the perfect subject,” because the photographer was as much social crusader as artist.
Yet in a way, this is also the biography of a book, and an obsession: Curtis’ multivolume “The North American Indian,” which he saw as his contribution to capturing Indian history. Funded by J.P. Morgan, Curtis wanted his book to encompass 20 volumes, and include thousands of photographs. And though Curtis lived to see those volumes published, along the way his quest destroyed his marriage, and his finances.
Curtis’ life has been tackled in biographies before, but no author has so detailed the odd and dramatic intersections of Curtis with Morgan, or President Theodore Roosevelt. In that way, at times, Egan’s book reads like an Erik Larson parallel-event-drama, one that swiftly moves from the West to the East Coast power corridor.
Egan details Curtis’ obsession with a revisionist story of Little Big Horn, which suggested that Custer watched the massacre from a distance. Curtis’ premise eventually earned him the scorn of President Roosevelt, who wrote, “such a theory is wildly improbable.”
Curtis was as much anthropologist as photographer, and he called his work “The Cause.” He recorded thousands of hours of Native language and song, in addition to taking photographs. At one point, Curtis had 17 people on his staff working as translators, guides, or assistants.
Curtis’ personal life was anything but a pretty picture, however. He had a nasty divorce, which caused him to turn his photo studio over to his wife. After a voyage to Alaska where he nearly froze to death, Curtis’ nadir occurred in Seattle when he was arrested for back alimony. He never really recovered, personally or professionally, and the next year was forced to sell his rights to “The North American Indian” to J.P. Morgan’s estate.
It was a cause that left Curtis divorced, broke, and bitter, but in the end, he succeeded — his images, including that of Princess Angeline, did shift attitudes. His pictures also became some of the most important pieces in the history of photography.
This year a complete copy of “The North American Indian” sold for a record $2.88 million at an auction house. Egan calls Curtis’ book a work of “lasting merit.” The same can also easily be said for “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher.”
Seattle writer Charles R. Cross is the author of eight books, including “Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock ‘N’ Roll,” just out from Harper Collins.