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Timothy Egan's latest: A photographer's greatness at all costs

Timothy Egan's new biography of Seattle's Edward S. Curtis sheds light on his epic effort to record the world of the American Indian and the high price he paid for his pursuits.
Timothy Egan. (Sophie Egan)

Timothy Egan. (Sophie Egan) None

 

A new Timothy Egan book is always an event if for no other reason than the author's enthusiasm for his subjects, and the larger lessons he draws from them.

In his last book, The Big Burn, Egan introduced us to the birth of the Forest Service, a big fire, brave men and the incredible vision — and weird quirks of character  — of progressive figures like Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, who did so much to shape (and save) the West as we know it and inspire new generations.

In his National Book Award-winning history, The Worst Hard Time, Egan resurrected the lost stories of the Dust Bowl's survivors and told the tale of how government policies both contributed to the perfect storm of a natural disaster, but also how the New Deal response to it laid down a pathway to recovery, a lesson resonant in the times of climate change and Katrina.

In The Good Rain, Egan led us on a journey of rediscovery of the Pacific Northwest itself (Egan's home). We learned about the 19th century young man, Theodore Winthrop, who traveled by canoe and saddle through the region as the first great tourist and wrote about his adventures in ways that we can still relate to. The book is a now classic paean to our soggy corner.

When Egan settles in with a subject for a book, he chooses to spend time with people he likes. He finds a narrative and drives it with enthusiasm, with passion. His work isn't all hero-worship — his Opinionator column for the New York Times features plenty of sharp writing when Egan wants to take down a worthy target. But he's generally persuasive about his enthusiasms, sweeping you up in the power of the elements that are at the heart of his stories of dust, fire, rain, and now light and shadow.

His new book, due out in early October, is Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28). It is the story of an artistic obsession; the great photographer's ambitious attempt to record the cultures of the North American Indians in one, 20-volume work of photography, history, anthropology, ethnography... you name it.

One thing Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher does is to recover Curtis as a Seattle figure. Everyone here is familiar with Curtis' work, and if you're lucky, some relative might have picked up a brown-tinted Curtis print at a garage sale or Bushell's auction somewhere along the way. But Curtis' fame, which rests mainly on his images of Native Americans, is a compilation that has become a national treasure. That project was conceived in Seattle, the home-base of the photographer's studio. And the dashing young photographer was helped with the friendship of men who helped make the modern city; men like the University of Washington's Edmond MeanyJudge Thomas Burke and the Seattle Times' Alden Blethen.

We learn that everything that was present in Curtis' epic work, the North American Indian, was evident in the very first portrait of an Indian he took. That was the amazing picture of Princess Angeline, chief Seattle's daughter, a poor, old woman in 1896, the year of her death, who Curtis photographed as she was. Her portrait was not as romantics might have wished her to be or as whites of the "a good Indian is a dead Indian" school might have expected. It was the picture of a woman who had lived a long life in a changing world, and it set the pattern for Curtis' great work.

"To look at that face," writes Egan, "and not see humanity is to lack humanity." In the 19th century, humanizing Indians without idealization alone was a kind of radical notion. Another painful chapter in the book involves Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce's visit to Seattle where he attends a UW football game (he didn't like it much), agrees to sit for a Curtis portrait, and whose words appealing to the good people of Puget Sound to help his tribe return to their Oregon homeland falls on deaf, even mocking, ears.

Egan tells of the impossible dream of a photographer who sought to capture the reality and humanity of dying peoples by undertaking what he calls the "most ambitious photographic odyssey in American history." It was this odyssey which led Curtis to the deserts of the Southwest, the prairies of Montana, the wind-whipped beaches of Neah Bay and the remote islands of the Arctic. It took much of Curtis' life to create and compile his record, and in many respects, his work devoured him.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Sep 19, 11:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice review, Knute. How does Egan deal with the huge amount of staging and outright fakery in the photographs?

I was working on a book about Curtis and the northwest at one point. I really came to dislike the guy.

Posted Wed, Sep 19, 12:23 p.m. Inappropriate

He discusses it, but not in too much depth. Egan sees it in the context of the larger accomplishment. Curtis blurred the line between artist and documentarian. While I found Curtis' legacy impressive as Egan describes it, for other reasons I came away thinking he was a pretty flawed character. A great artist, but like manygreat artists, not particularly likable. I'll be interested in your take.

Posted Wed, Sep 19, 3:57 p.m. Inappropriate

That was some of the criticism made about Josef Scaylea of the Times, too - the rumor that he carried an old Indian around in his trunk and when he found the right scene and lighting, or traffic accident...Nonetheless, a brilliant photographer.

RAnderson

Posted Wed, Sep 19, 8:26 p.m. Inappropriate

A little like Audubon painting dead birds.

MM

Posted Fri, Sep 21, 7:16 a.m. Inappropriate

Don't forget his first book: Breaking Blue, one of the best murder mysteries ever, about the longest unsolved murder in Spokane. It was Egan's successful stab at true crime.

Posted Sat, Sep 22, 1:52 p.m. Inappropriate

For another take on Curtis's life and legend, read the excellent "The Shadow Catcher", 2007, by Marianne Wiggins, where the author entwines several narrative threads.

Kayzel

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