Friday, March 8, 2013

Book Review: “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis” by Timothy Egan

I recently read “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis” by Timothy Egan.   It is a fascinating biography of one of our nation's most brilliant photographers.   Curtis is on par with Matthew Brady and is perhaps more prolific than Ansel Adams, yet few people know of him.

Edward Curtis in many ways is one of my photographic heroes.   In the late 1800’s Curtis had been a poor farmer.    One day he decided to purchase a share of a Seattle portrait photography studio.   He had no experience with a camera.   After apprenticing himself to his partner for a few years, Edward started his own studio and quickly became the premier portrait photographer in the United States.   His most famous clients included Teddy Roosevelt and later, JP Morgan.  

As his fame grew, his fascination with Native Americans was kindled.   By the early 1900’s Curtis had befriended George Bird Grinnell, the founder of the Audubon Society, Editor of Field and Stream and an activist for conservation and the rights of Native Americans.   Grinnell is a titanic figure in the outdoors and environmental movement in the United States.   On a trip to the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana, Grinnell convinced Curtis to carry out his dream.    

That dream was to create the most important anthropological record in North American history.  Curtis had decided to photograph the remaining tribes of Native Americans who were still trying to live as their ancestors had.   He identified 80 tribes and determined that he would create 20 books documenting them. 

Over the next thirty years of his life, Curtis photographed the tribes, recorded their languages and wrote down their songs.   He did all of this work for free!!   He never saw a cent of profit from this monumental undertaking.   Along the way, he gave up nearly everything that was dear to him in order to complete the task.   His wife left him.   He lost his studio, his home and many of his friends.   Still, he stayed with the task despite being bankrupt.

Curtis’ work became the most important documentation of Native American life ever to be written.   Many tribes used his books to re-establish their traditions after they had been lost.   In many cases he interviewed the last living member of a decimated tribe.   He also accurately re-wrote the history of the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the Nez Perce War.   Curtis did all of this despite having only a grammar school education.

His life was full of adventure and discovery.   Yet, he was in many ways a very lonely man.   He truly gave every bit of himself to his art.  

The author, Timothy Egan, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, did a masterful job researching the tale of Curtis and weaving his story into a page turner.    Egan managed to make this historical biography as fascinating as any novel.   This was a hard book to put down!

I must admit that I am fascinated by Native American culture and history.   Pairing that interest for me with photography makes this book a can’t miss.   However, I have tried to read about Curtis before only to be bored senseless by other authors’ bland writing styles.   In this case, I am confident that Timothy Egan has created a masterpiece that would entertain and educate anyone, even if they held no interest in photography or Native American Culture.

You can purchase the book here:

The first image that accompanies this post is entitled "The Bird Woman's Tipi".   It was made at the Lodgepole Gallery & Tipi Village at the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, MT.    You can read more about the image at this earlier blog post

The second image is a self portrait of Edward S. Curtis.  It is a public domain image.


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