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.
Crosscut archive image.

Tim Egan

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

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.

You’ve described Curtis as Seattle’s forgotten Michelangelo. For readers unfamiliar with him, what are a few things you’d like them to know about Curtis? 

For starters, the greatest photographic achievement in American history — more than 40,000 pictures, taken largely from cumbersome glass-plate negatives, of native people. The only thing I can compare it to his Mathew Brady’s Civil War pictures, and Brady didn’t take a lot of his photographs.

Second, the anthropological achievement: documenting tribal stories, creation myths, dietary habits, etc. [The knowledge is] still used to today. Third, he was the first person to figure out what really happened at the Battle of Little Bighorn, with Custer. Fourth, the technical breakthroughs, from his use of colored lantern slides to his groundbreaking film (In the Land of Head-Hunters — colorized in parts, using all native cast, on location).

Finally, perhaps most important, the artistry: capturing faces, traits, the human element of people who’ve been stereotyped. 

It’s incredible that Curtis had little formal education but became one of America’s most prominent artists and anthropologists. How did he decide on a life in photography?

Like all obsessives, he got deep into it and could never get out. It started as a bit of a lark, then grew into The Cause, The Lifework. He was up against time, U.S. Government, cultural elites on the East Coast who looked down on him. But the photo world understood, as did the American Indians, that he was doing something special.

What was the role of  Chief Seattle’s daughter Princess Angeline in inspiring his project to document the Indian tribes of North America?

She was this vanishing, spectral presence: the “Last Indian” so-called. Curtis was interested in the authentic (mountains, rivers, native people) that was being erased to create this big city. Seattle, by the way, is the biggest city in the world named for a Native American, but for a while they made it a crime for Indians to live within the city limits. (One of the names under consideration for a new King County water taxi is the Princess Angeline; the decision is expected later this month.)

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Princess Angeline/Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis's "The North American Indian," 2003.

Over the years, Curtis documented the lives of Indians around the continent in the wake of genocide and flagrant efforts to bury their cultures. How did this Curtis gain the trust of members of 80 different tribes?

He took his time. He got to know them, and them him. He was patient. He would come back, time and again, year after year, before taking a photograph.

How did Curtis come to know luminaries such as President Theodore Roosevelt who became his friend and supporter, and the rapacious financier J.P. Morgan who became his patron?

He was charming, and people found him dashing, adventurous, sort of rakish. Roosevelt was impressed at the scope of his work and said the picture that Curtis took of him was the best one anyone ever took. He used it in his autobiography, and a print of it hangs in the Rainier Club. Getting in to see Morgan, and get his financial backing, was just sheer balls. Curtis loved a dare.

Curtis took extreme risks to document Native American life. Are there one or two stories of his daring and perseverance that particularly impressed you? 

Floating down the wild, undammed Columbia River — that was a suicide trip, and nearly cost him his life. His car nearly fell over a cliff in Northern California. His horse threw him near the Grand Canyon. It’s amazing he lived to be an old man in his 80s.

Curtis provided evidence that disproved mistaken notions about Indian life held by academics. What are some notable misconceptions that Curtis exposed? Didn’t he interview Indian survivors of Custer’s Last Stand who shed new light on Custer’s leadership?

He was the first person, I believe, to completely figure out the Custer story. But he pulled his punches, and put his report under lock, because [Roosevelt] warned him about consequences (the ever-watchful Mrs. Custer). But he nailed the story. His version was the correct version.

Curtis paid special attention to the Indians of the Northwest and photographed their lives and rituals. What particularly impressed you about his study of the Native Americans of the Northwest?

He loved the way they interacted with the sea. Curtis said early on that “nature must tell the story,” and in the Northwest Indians he saw that, albeit at a time when it was being marginalized. (Photo below: A Clayoquot fisherman in British Columbia, photographed by Edward S. Curtis (1916). From the Library and Archives Canada via Flickr.)

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Despite his accomplishments, Curtis had a troubled personal life that you describe vividly. You mention that Seattle’s exclusive Rainier Club provided a home for Curtis. How did the Rainier Club become a part of his life?

His wife kicked him out. The Club took him in. At first, a distinguished guest, then he paid for his rent at the Club with his masterpieces. As a result, Rainier Club is by default one of the great Curtis galleries in the world.           

What did people in Seattle think of Curtis? Were people here aware of the significance of his project on the tribes of North America?

He was a celebrity, probably the best known Seattleite for 30 years, but the people in Seattle didn’t really get what he was up to, with the exception of his good friend [professor of history] Edmond S. Meany out at the University of Washington.


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