The Artist as Ethnographer - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Artist as Ethnographer

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher:
The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.

By Timothy Egan
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 370 pages, illustrated, $28)

It’s possible the Great American ethnographer was a photographer. His name was Edward S. Curtis, and he is the subject of Timothy Egan’s heartbreaking biography, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, for Curtis’s mighty artistic struggle came to naught during his lifetime. Egan’s previous books include the National Book Award winning The Worst Hard Time (2006) and The Big Burn (2009), among other tomes about the West. Simply put, Curtis (1868-1952) took pictures — thousands of them — of Indians, and was obsessed with them, in fact.

By the turn of the 20th century when Curtis began his work, Native Americans were assimilating into white culture at a rapid rate and discarding the “old ways.” His magisterial achievement, the 20 volume The North American Indian, Being a Series of Volumes Picturing and Describing the Indians of the United States and Alaska, is the most complete record of a culturally vanishing race ever produced by a photographer.

Curtis was a talented tinkerer who managed to build a crude camera when he was twelve. His itinerant preacher father moved his family from Wisconsin to Seattle, Washington, when Curtis was in his teens, and the picture-mad young man almost immediately went to work in a portrait studio.

In 1896 the young photographer met an old Indian woman living in squalor in Seattle. She went by the name of Princess Angeline and was the surviving daughter of the legendary Duwamish Chief Sealth (hence the city name “Seattle”). Curtis convinced her to sit for a portrait in which he dressed her in traditional native garb. The resulting haunting photograph told him that he had found his calling.

Not long after, while Curtis was out photographing Mount Rainier, he had an encounter that changed his life. While on the mountain he met the naturalist and ethnographer George Bird Grinnell and Clint Merriam, a co-founder of the National Geographic Society. The two men were part of a surveying party studying the possibilities of turning the Mount Rainier region into a national park. Curtis always made the most of such contacts.

In 1899 he was invited to accompany as sole photographer a sea expedition along the Alaskan coast, financed by the railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman, who traveled in the grand style. The George W. Elder was a luxury vessel outfitted to cater to the scientific proclivities of an all-star cast, including the naturalists John Burroughs and John Muir, the U.S. Forest Service chief Gifford Pinchot, along with Grinnell, Merriam and others. The various botanists, zoologists, geologists, geographers, ornithologists and artists (some 30 in all) enjoyed the onboard library, taxidermy studio, and elevated conversation at Harriman’s sumptuous table. Egan writes that for Curtis the trip “set the course for the rest of his life.”

Curtis’s rising reputation got him an invitation in 1904 from Theodore Roosevelt to photograph the president and his family while they vacationed at their summer home at Oyster Bay on Long Island. Curtis, a handsome man, “all blue eyes and bounce in his step,” hit it off with the ebullient TR, who thought the photographer’s artistic endeavors “a bully idea.” It’s interesting to note that this was a time when persons of accomplishment were comfortable around each other despite differences in education or background. The polymath president and Harvard graduate found interesting a talented man who could only boast a sixth-grade education. That meeting certainly looked good on Curtis’s résumé.

One of the doors that opened for Curtis as his career took off was that of the notorious Wall St. financier J.P. Morgan. His new friends arranged for a rare meeting with Morgan, a man of little patience who almost immediately attempted to dismiss Curtis from his office. The photographer persevered and soon had his portfolio open on Morgan’s desk. The banker was impressed and authorized a check for $75,000. Curtis assured Morgan that he would complete his Indian project in five years, but in the next quarter century the Morgans — father and son — financed Curtis’ massive project to the tune of $2.5 million, a huge sum in the early 20th century.

Its compilation required years of travel to remote parts of the American West and Alaska. Hundreds of glass-plate negatives and 200,000 photogravures accumulated. Curtis photographed members of some 80 tribes as they hunted, fished, rode horses, and participated in tribal religious ceremonies (he once lugged his heavy camera equipment down into a Hopi kiva full of rattlesnakes) on their reservations. Such native celebrities as the Nez Perce’ Chief Joseph and the notorious Apache Geronimo graced his frames. As did solitary women unaccompanied by husbands or other men, something almost unheard of in the annals of early photography. And following the prototype he started with Princess Angeline, he paid Indians — as if they were actors in a drama — to don traditional garb to add realism to the photos. Curtis proved to be more and more adept at convincing his subjects to participate in his cultural masquerade.

Curtis’s aim was simple: “I want to make them live forever,” he wrote to a friend. The photographer was obsessed with the age-old idea of the Indian as the “noble savage.” He was personally at war with a federal policy that he believed would “take the Indian out of the Indian,” a cultural purge that Curtis saw completed in his lifetime.

Despite the ongoing support of the Morgans, Curtis experienced both poverty and ignominy as he followed his star. He was a very inept businessman. In 1910 he premiered a touring “picture opera,” his illuminated photographs displayed on a stage while an orchestra provided musical interludes alternating with Curtis’s scholarly narration. Every show in every city lost money. Soon after, his wife Clara divorced him. And his long trips ensured that he saw little of his four children. He did see much of his photographic subjects, of course.

Curtis’s spendthrift ways were his downfall. Deep in debt, he signed over all the rights to his work to the Morgan Library, and in 1930 wrote that “I did not possess enough money to buy a ham sandwich.” His last years were bleak and he died in obscurity in Los Angeles in 1952.

Timothy Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher — along with the great photographs themselves — ensure that Edward Curtis will be remembered for a long time to come.

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