Tim Egan on Edward S. Curtis, 'Seattle's Michelangelo'

The author talks about the life of Edward S. Curtis, a prolific photographer of American Indians at a time when they faced huge pressure.
Pawnee Scouts, photographed by Edward S. Curtis

Pawnee Scouts, photographed by Edward S. Curtis Kansas Tourism/Flickr

Tim Egan

Tim Egan Photo: Barry Wong

A Cayuse woman and child.

A Cayuse woman and child. Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis's "The North American Indian," 2003.

Taken as a whole, the work of Edward Curtis is a singular achievement. Never before have we seen the Indians of North America so close to the origins of their humanity, their sense of themselves in the world, their innate dignity and self-possession.

— N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Kiowa author

Seattle’s Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) was the most prominent photographer of his time. In 1900, he launched a grand project to capture on film the lives and culture of the North American Indian tribes. His monumental work has been considered the “largest anthropological enterprise ever undertaken.” Yet, by the time of his death, he was impoverished, living in obscurity and largely forgotten.

Acclaimed Seattle journalist and historian Timothy Egan introduced the remarkable Curtis to a new generation in his vivid biography Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). As Mr. Egan recounts, a 1896 meeting with Chief Seattle’s last surviving child Princess Angeline or Kick-is-om-lo, inspired Curtis who, a few years later, embarked on an often perilous three-decade journey, documenting the lives of more than 80 Native American tribes with over 40,000 photographs, collecting thousands of songs, myths, customs and rituals, and even creating vocabulary and language guides for 75 tribes. 

As Egan describes, Curtis crisscrossed the continent at great personal risk as he collected images and stories, and demanded recognition of the human rights of the native populace. For his constant concern with light and shadow, Curtis earned the nickname “The Shadow Catcher.”   

Egan’s account captures Curtis’s almost incomprehensible devotion to The Cause, documenting “vanishing” Indian cultures as he challenged stereotypes of people who had been marginalized and defrauded by the larger society. Curtis created the most definitive archive on Native Americans with a series of 20 volumes that was considered, by some, the most important publication since the King James Bible. As Egan points out, this towering achievement is especially surprising in light of Curtis’s humble beginnings and a formal education that ended with sixth grade.

Today, Egan notes, tribes are rediscovering and using the Curtis works to inspire and educate a new generation. And Egan's book about Curtis, published two years ago, is well on its way to claiming an enduring place among tales of Seattle, the Pacific Northwest and the West. 

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is the product of Egan’s extensive archival research as well as arduous travel to many of the locations and tribes studied by Curtis. The book has won praise for its compelling narrative, graceful prose, originality, and humanizing of Curtis and the Native people he photographed and admired. Among other awards, the bestselling biography won the Carnegie Medal for the Best Nonfiction Book of 2012, and also was recognized with starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly.

Egan worked for 18 years as a writer for The New York Times, first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent and then as a national enterprise reporter. He continues to write a lively opinion column for the Times. His other books include the National Book Award winning  history of the people who lived through the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time, as well as The Big Burn, The Good Rain, Breaking Blue, and Lasso the Wind. Mr. Egan also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as part of a team of reporters who wrote the series How Race Is Lived in America. He lives with his family in Seattle.

For this recent interview, Egan looked back and answered a series of questions by email on the life and times of Edward Curtis.

How did you come to write your sweeping biography? Did it grow our of your previous books on history of the West?

I’d always heard something of Curtis. I think anyone who grows up in the Northwest has seen one of his pictures. They are, in a way, cultural background — just sort of there. But then I started to look into his life story and realized what a masterpiece his life and his work were.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Aug 20, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr Eagan wrote another great book. I've read several of his other books, "The Worst Hard Time...", "The Big Burn", and this book is clearly one of his best. The story reads like fiction but being true makes it a regular page burner. IT was great to learn some history about the photos I've seen all around town for years and not paid much attention to who took them, or why.

One is left wondering why Mr. Curtis's books have not been reprinted. But I guess in this age of digital books not enough people would buy a copy.

GaryP

Posted Wed, Aug 20, 11:04 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm curious to understand why reviewer, Robin Lindley, compares Curtis's masterful photographs to Michelangelo rather than, say, a Rembrandt? Since there was no photography way back when I guess she can compare him to any artisan of the past. But photography, in my mind, comes closer to representing Curtis's artistic touch than a marble sculptor. Just wondering. Otherwise, a good introduction to this man's superb documentation of a vanishing people. rogersj70

rogersj70

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