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Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher

Timothy Egan's book is a stunning portrait of Edward Curtis, the photographer who made it his mission to photograph Native Americans.

By David Holahan / October 15, 2012

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher By Timothy Egan Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 384 pp.


Edward Curtis led a life that would make for implausible fiction. He parlayed a sixth-grade education, a hardscrabble childhood, and boundless ambition into fame and quasi-destitution, simultaneously. At the peak of his success – as he supped with President Teddy Roosevelt and photographed his children, played Carnegie Hall, and convinced J.P. Morgan to be his patron – Curtis was living hand-to-mouth. The banker would pay for some of his expenses, but not a penny in salary.

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And virtually every cent of his and Morgan’s went to The Cause: documenting – celebrating is probably a better word – the lives and cultures of Native Americans. He accomplished this not simply with his evocative photographs. He also did it in compelling prose, through audio recordings of fading languages, and by using a new medium: moving pictures. These were not potshots. Curtis had to gain the trust of his subjects, who, unsurprisingly, were exceedingly wary of white people in the early years of the 20th century.

Curtis lived with and often like the people he captured on film. He was at home in the wilderness, could travel great distances and endure frequent privations. He dodged eternity now and again, often with his children in tow. In a Hopi snake ceremony, a hissing rattler was gingerly draped about his shoulders.

Curtis saw himself in a mad race to photograph the First Americans before the American Century crushed their spirit and steamrolled their traditional ways. In the argot of the era, as well as in the caption of one of Curtis’ most famous photographs, Indians were a “Vanishing Race,” drowning in the melting pot. Indeed, such was the intent of the federal government, which criminalized Native religious ceremonies and sought to separate Indians from their culture and communal lands. Often, both Curtis and his photographic subjects were breaking the law.

Timothy Egan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and New York Times writer, seems to have gone to school on his subject to write Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. The ungainly title of his seventh book notwithstanding, the author artfully frames a stunning portrait of Edward Curtis that captures every patina of his glory, brilliance, and pathos.

Curtis’ greatest legacy is his 20-volume opus titled "The North American Indian," which depicts dozens of Indian tribes from Oklahoma to the Pacific coast, from the Great Plains to remote Alaskan islands where bureaucrats and missionaries dared not tread. This Herculean task consumed Curtis for more than three decades. It also divided his family, destroyed his marriage, dissolved friendships, degraded his health, and left him without ownership of his own photographs.


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