By Christopher Burns
Timothy Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) is a biography of the man who sought to document and preserve Native American culture before it vanished altogether. Edward Curtis’ project began after photographing Kick-is-om-lo, known around Seattle as Princess Angeline, the only surviving family member of the chief for whom Seattle is named. She lived in squalor, and Curtis saw in her someone that “had seen worlds change, forests leveled, tidelands filled, people crushed,” Egan writes. Curtis saw himself as a great social crusader and referred to his project as “The Cause.” The resulting twenty volume The North American Indian filled with photographs, recordings and more cost him his marriage and left him in penury, but he accomplished his goal. Timothy Egan writes with a cool vernacular and depth of spirit that has won him praise from NPR, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Seattle Times. Egan is the author of The Worst Hard Times: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), which won the National Book Award. He has been a New York Times contributor for eighteen years where he writes a weekly column.
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher received the 2013 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award by Phi Beta Kappa. Established in 1960, the award recognizes significant contributions to the humanities by non-fiction books.
How did you come to the decision to write a biography of Edward Curtis?
EGAN: I started looking into his life, and realized what an amazing story it was. I’m always looking for narrative, and here’s a guy with a 6th grade education who goes on to perform not just the greatest photographic achievement in American history, but the most exhaustive anthropological project by any one American.
Curtis came to be known by the Navajo as “the Shadow Catcher.” What was the nickname’s origin?
EGAN: The name came from his constantly chasing light and shadow, looking for the right combination. His studio was the outdoors, or at least his tent. Another nickname the natives gave him was The Man Who Sleeps on His Breath–because he had an air mattress in his tent. But that name’s not as catchy.
Curtis came to the reservations to document the life of Native American tribes at the close of a painful era. Many would have had little reason to trust a white man coming across the plains to document their lives. How was Curtis able to win the trust of the tribes? And what anecdotes stand out in your research that demonstrated the extent to which he was willing to go to gain that trust?
EGAN: It took him awhile to win their trust. At first, they shunned him, threatened him, and chased him with horses. But he was persistent, kept coming back, and after a few years other tribes were actually writing him, requesting him to come to their homelands. He was sincere. And the pictures were real–there was a humanity, devoid of stereotype.
Some have described his great project as romantic or quixotic, often citing both White Calf dressing as a blond US Calvary soldier in his portrait and Curtis “Photoshopping” an alarm clock out of a photograph. Gary Kist of the Washington Post noted that you are somewhat forgiving of these practices. What are your thoughts on Curtis’ pursuit to capture a way of life that was very much poised to disappear and his methods of capturing it?
EGAN: People forget that Curtis was a portrait photographer–he was not, in the sense of the word we use now, a documentarian. Now some of his work, with the monumental landscapes, fishing, etc., became documentary. But he was looking for personality, effect, the character of his subjects. Usually, he would ask them what they wanted to wear for their session–and they’d show up in all kinds of outfits. As for the “photoshopping,” this wasn’t a secret. It made him more of a pioneer. He didn’t want a modern thing in a picture that was supposed to show people still living as they’d lived for years.
Curtis’ relationship with magnate J.P. Morgan seems an unlikely partnership. Morgan’s “railroads crisscrossed Indian lands and helped accelerate the decline of their cultures,” Hector Tobar of the Los Angeles Times commented. Morgan is quoted as saying to Curtis, “I like a man who attempts the impossible.” How did Curtis persuade Morgan to finance his project? Conversely, what did Morgan see in the project?
EGAN: Morgan financed him, but in many ways, it was a pact with the devil–the worst thing to happened to Curtis. He ended up losing his copyright to the House of Morgan. Morgan was a collector–of art, of people, of money of course. To him these Curtis pictures were just another bauble to add to his collection, and to show people what a swell guy he was.
What was the most memorable and moving story/photograph you found in your research?
EGAN: I like the Columbia River fishing pictures. Here is the undamed Columbia, which empties more water into the Pacific than any other in the Western Hemisphere, and Curtis nearly died, crashing down these rapids to get pictures of a people who were disappearing. The river would disappear, in a sense, as well. But at the end of this trip he lets his boat go out to sea, where it’s crashed by huge waves. Curtis and an aid sit alone by a fire, eating oysters, penniless, having completed this amazing journey. He was sort of an Indiana Jones with a camera.
At any point, did you discover something wholly unexpected that perhaps changed your view of Curtis or gave you a deeper understanding of him?
EGAN: I never really knew how great the anthropological achievement was–that is, all the recordings of Indian creation myths, lifestyle, etc. Also, Curtis himself changed–from a bystander, to a passionate advocate. As he lost everything in his life, he came to sympathize with these first Americans who had lost everything.
In the end, Curtis’ work succeeded in changing the country’s perspective of its native peoples. After being with Curtis–his life and work–for so long, what was the most significant change that his work inspired?
EGAN: It got people to see the Indians as real human beings, not just types.
Both The Worst Hard Times and Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher tell stories from the wounded past of the United States. What inspires you to tell these stories for a modern audience?
EGAN: I’m just looking for good stories to tell, that are largely untold. I look, as I said, for a full-fleshed narrative. I’m not interested in fighting any academic fights.
Although Short Night of the Shadow Catcher takes the life and work of Edward Curtis as its subject, how do you see Curtis’ work and your explication of his life as playing into the contemporary discourse about Native Americans who face economic, social and political inequality in the United States?
EGAN: Again, through Curtis, I think we see natives more as people, rather than victims, or “savages” or any of the other archetypes. You see a lot of sad eyes in his pictures, but you also see some timeless faces, and–near the end of the project–many smiles.
Christopher Burns is a senior at the University of Maine majoring in English. The University of Maine is home to the Delta of Maine Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.