I first found out about this book through our local library, which was sponsoring a book talk by the author, Timothy Egan. Jon wasn’t super excited about going – but after I explained what the book was about, he agreed to go with me. Note to self: At some point, someday, I’ll start reading the books before going to the book talk – but maybe it doesn’t matter.
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is a biography of Edward S. Curtis, the famed Seattle portrait photographer and creator of the turn of the last century masterpiece, The North American Indian. If you haven’t heard of it, you aren’t alone, but I can all but guarantee you have seen at least one of Curtis’ photographs. He is the Ansel Adams of the portrait world.
The North American Indian was Curtis’ crowning achievement; his life’s work. It was a 20 volume set of books, documenting in words and photographs the way of life of over 80 Native American tribes. The books were originally supposed to be published within five years, but the wealth of information he collected and his meticulous documentation of songs, spiritual ceremonies, foods, and biographies on tribal leaders stretched the project out over 20 years.
He was not without his critics, some of whom thought that Curtis’ desire to capture a historical view of Native American life was simplistic and ignored the real issues. However, Curtis wanted to capture what life was like before their culture and traditions were destroyed by the encroachment of the white man. Therefore, he wasn’t above doing a little bit of manipulation to the settings, or the final photos.
Surprisingly, Curtis did not receive a salary for the project, and became ever more deeply in debt as a result of the costs incurred during his travels documenting the tribes. In the end, between 220 and 280 full sets of The North American Indian were created, and Curtis sold his rights to his work to the son of J.P. Morgan, who had originally agreed to finance the project. He lost many of his original glass plate negatives in his divorce from his wife, choosing to shatter them instead of turn them over to her.
After the publication of all 20 volumes, Curtis grew old and died in relative obscurity. It was a sad end for a man who had so much passion for such a monumental project. Like many artists, his work was rediscovered in the 1970s, and has enjoyed an increasing popularity since that time. A complete set of The North American Indian sold for $1.44 million in 2012. Not too shabby…
Egan does a wonderful job with this book. He captures Curtis’ obsession with the project, and candidly discusses his shortcomings. He makes Curtis into a multi-dimensional man, explaining his love for his children and the difficulty he had with being separated from them during his long absences for fieldwork.
I knew barely anything of Curtis when I began the book, but I feel like Egan painted a picture of the man: stubborn, charismatic, driven, and at times possessed by a deep melancholy.
Egan’s words make you feel like you are there, watching, experiencing the things Curtis experienced. I felt protective when hearing about the divorce proceedings, and how they played out, although I know Curtis was not without fault in the matter. I got a glimpse of the lifelong friendships that he made, and the true grief he experienced when his friends passed away one by one, leaving him ever more alone.
Edward S. Curtis lived a truly unique life, and created a masterpiece that will be a treasure for generations to come. Egan captured it in a way few writers can. Brilliant.
For those of you who now are curious about Curtis’ life’s work – The North American Indian has been digitized and is available for viewing.