Edward S. Curtis’s name is synonymous with photography of Native Americans in the early 20th century. The man traveled all over the American West in his quest to document indigenous peoples before their way of life was subverted.
“Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis” chronicles the stories behind Curtis’s work.
Egan is the best-selling author of six books. In 2006 he won the National Book Award for “The Worst Hard Time.”
Curtis was the brother of photographer Asahel Curtis who made many photos in Puget Sound including a large body of work at Mount Rainier.
I haven’t yet read Egan’s book but I hope and assume he addresses the controversy of Curtis’s work. Curtis was known to dress Native Americans in traditional but not necessarily accurate garb for his photos. He also engaged in the early 20th century version of Photoshop – retouching photos to remove modern elements.
Though I view Curtis’s work through his romanticized haze I can’t deny the man worked longer and harder than any other photographer of his time to document Native Americans. And, he had a damn good eye.
Here’s more about Edward Curtis:
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. 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 they consumed by modern culture. 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 customs and histories 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 world’s first narrative documentary film. In the process, the charming rogue with the grade-school education created the most definitive archive ever of the American Indian.
His most powerful backer was Theodore Roosevelt, and his patron was J. P. Morgan. Despite the friends in high places, Curtis 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 his work would grow in stature with the years, and today rare Curtis photogravures bring high prices at auction.