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.
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Timothy Egan. (Sophie Egan)

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.


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.

His multiple-decade obsession came at great cost to health, family and finances. He wore out his body, his long-suffering wife divorced him, his family divided its loyalties — he was estranged from and never reconciled with his brother, Asahel, also a famed Northwest photographer — and he went bankrupt. Curtis spent decades in the field living with tribes, documenting them, staging scenes that he thought would capture the old ways that were fading even as he photographed. He recorded their stories, their vocabularies, he looked for the ordinary and elevated it to art.

In many respects, Curtis' effort to capture the American Indian paralleled their decline. Curtis seemed to fade like the cultures he tried to capture on film. Here was a Seattle man inspired to make an impact on the world through photography, the emerging art of being an alchemist of light and shadow. The printing with gold and silver, the paper and chemicals, the processing of glass plates, the tinting, coloring and retouching.

His images might be universal, but much of the magic took place here in his Seattle studio, where, Chihuly-like, Curtis relied on a trained technical staff to help him achieve his vision and undertake commercial work to help pay the bills for his art.

Curtis's tale also has aspects of the typical Seattle story, of a guy who comes to town, is inspired by what he finds in the Northwest (people, landscape, freedom) and decides to do something big. He tries to balance art and commerce, and grabs onto new technology to make his vision come true. In addition to his cameras, Curtis used wax recording cylinders to capture Indian songs and ceremonies; he used movie cameras to capture native peoples on silent film, and later made the first all-Indian Hollywood movie (In the Land of the Headhunters). He might have had to haul his equipment on mules into the canyons and back country, but he was using all the high-tech means at his disposal to do his work. The result was a unique archive that by rights should never have existed, had common sense prevailed.

Part of Curtis' story is that he had to find a profit-minded backer to underwrite his work, and he did with the support of financier J.P. Morgan. But it wasn't charity: Curtis' magnum opus was expected to turn a profit. It did not, and his deal with the devil ultimately cost Curtis control and ownership of his greatest work. His project produced books that were unaffordable even to millionaires and the major institutions expected to purchase copies (thank goodness a few did).

Curtis' original 10-year timeline stretched to 30 years, he wore out his staff, sponsors and family before he staggered across the finish line. A world that at the turn of the 20th century was still fascinated by the Indian had moved on by the Great Depression. The final volumes of the North American Indian were destined for obscurity. The sepia-toned images of Indians in robes and holding baskets, riding horses and juxtaposed against wild scenery were passe. Curtis had created a set of antique photographs of an antique people for the edification of the one percent class.

The larger lesson in the book isn't about government policy, except inasmuch as the government's over-arching failure with the tribes is ever-present. Still, you are left wondering how much more Curtis could have accomplished (or accomplished with less personal cost) if he had had the support of institutions like the Smithsonian, where he was regarded as an amateur.

But the book honors one man's obsession to create a kind of ark for a people before the deluge of war, disease, extermination, assimilation and the 20th century had taken their toll. Curtis comes off as an artist with a mission you can respect, a cultural adventurer you can envy, but he seems in the end a bit unknowable, his psychology unexplored, the depth of his psyche unplumbed.

Still, this book is a tribute to the public benefit of this life's work, and is a tribute to a single man's vision pursued despite the odds, at the expense of what most of us hold dear. Today, Curtis' works are treasured by collectors, tribes, museums, anthropologists, photographers and scholars. Posterity was the winner in the shadow-catcher's epic feat.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.