- Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pp.
The Last Explorer
Edward S. Curtis gained renown for the great enterprise of recording the culture of the Native Americans of North America in picture, sound and word. The 40,000 photographs that Curtis took between 1896 and 1927 recorded the traditional way of life of the First Americans at the “point of no return.” Even more remarkable were the achingly beautiful portraits he took, of famous individuals like Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce or the otherwise unknown girl with a paint-streaked face, Mosa of the Mohave. Had he waited even a few years or a decade later, the tide of the White Man’s civilization would have engulfed the craft methods, religious rituals and, most of all, the individuality of the “Indians” who posed for him. Curtis immortalized the lives and the lore of the Native Americans, saving both from extinction.
Curtis was given the name “Shadow Catcher” by the Native Americans he recorded for posterity. As the new biography of Curtis by Timothy Egan shows, it was an appropriate name. As a photographer, an ethnologist and a student of human nature, Curtis proved that the North American tribes were far from being heathens. They nurtured forms of spirituality as profound as other groups of people living close to nature throughout the world. He showed that they had souls.
But what of Curtis’ own soul? What was the inner spirit – or demon – that drove this self-made, self-taught man to astonishing levels of creativity? What possessed him to curtail his profitable photographic business and then to risk his family’s well-being in order to take his immortal photos of the First Americans?
Answers to these questions are not easily attained. Egan, who won the National Book Award for his account of the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, The Worst Hard Time, is a first-rate narrative historian. Although Egan shares many insights into the character of Curtis, the present book is in no respects a psychological biography or a character-driven study. In Shadow Catcher, Egan lets the remarkable course of Curtis’ great photographic endeavor supply the momentum of the story.
Curtis, at least on the surface, was not given to prolonged reflection. Egan’s decision, therefore, to emphasize action over analysis was certainly a wise one.
A born tinkerer, Curtis began his life’s adventure, as we will see, by building a primitive camera. Toward the end of his life, he filed a patent for a device he called the Curtis Counter Current Concentrator, designed to sift bits of gold from the debris of played-out mines. Instead of selling the device and making money while others did the work, the aged Curtis went into this new adventure with all of his habitual, manic energy. He was like a character in a B. Traven story, saddling up for one last “big strike” somewhere out there in the Rockies or the Sierra Madre. Somehere – out there.
Perhaps the most revelatory glimpse into the inner Curtis comes from a self-portrait photo from around 1899.This was dated after he had begun to take photographs of Native Americans, but before he had embarked in 1906 on his ambitious project to make a detailed study of all the tribes. This photo bears some close scrutiny.
Curtis wore his beard, then going out of fashion, in the Van Dyke style of the early 17th century. Likewise, his felt hat had one side of its brim turned-up in a rakish angle worthy of the French Musketeers or English Cavaliers from that time period. Look at his face and you see but one eye clearly, the rest being shaded by a chiaroscuro worthy of Rembrandt.
Look at the face of Edward S. Curtis and you see not a man of the late 19th or early 20th century. Curtis was the last of the great explorers of the North American continent, tracing his lineage back to Francisco de Coronado, Henry Hudson and Sieur de La Salle. Like them, he paid a steep personal price for his trail-blazing endeavors.
Curtis’ interest in photography was stimulated by a truly remarkable occurrence. His father, a Union Civil War veteran from the Old Northwest, had brought home a camera lens as a souvenir of the conflict. It was an odd sort of war memento and, as Egan points out, Curtis’ father did nothing with it. “It sat for a dozen years, untouched.”
Johnson A. Curtis did not achieve much of anything after the Civil War. Everything he tried – failed. He followed the call as an itinerant preacher, bringing along his son, Edward, born in 1868, on expeditions into the still sparsely-settled Minnesota backwoods. Ed Curtis lived the life of the Native Americans, now pushed further west after the bloody frontier war of 1862. He traveled by canoe with his father, learned to hunt and cook his supper in the wild and nurtured the hardy, self-reliant attitudes that would underpin his campaign to photograph the Native American tribes later in life.
The young Ed Curtis discovered the camera lens and using a guide book, built himself a primitive camera. After the struggling family relocated to Washington Territory in 1887, he was unable to do much toward nurturing his interest in photography. His father died and he was the breadwinner for the family. Following a serious accident while working for a logging company, Curtis was laid-up for nearly a year. He bought a 14-by-17 inch view camera and decided to go to Seattle to apprentice himself in a photographic studio. It was a bold, risky move, as he borrowed $150 based on the family homestead to invest in a career about which he knew next to nothing.
The plan worked – spectacularly well in fact. In a couple of years, Curtis was recognized as Seattle’s up-and-coming photographer. He had an artist’s eye, a frontiersman’s stamina and a sure grasp of the most exacting technical detail. He mastered the difficult art of photoengraving and created artsy images with “a honeyed sepia tone.”
Two women played significant roles in setting Curtis on his life work. One was a sixteen-year old-girl named Clara Phillips who first visited him while he was convalescing from his accident. She later married him, believing and supporting him in his bid to become a great photographer. She stoically endured his growing obsession with recording the lives of the North American tribes until looming bankruptcy and possible infidelity on his part caused her patience to finally snap. Significantly, there is no picture of Clara Curtis in this book.
There certainly is a photo of the other woman who changed Curtis’s life. This was the aged Native American woman whose Anglo name was Princess Angeline. She was the daughter of Chief Seattle and was the last of the Duwamish tribe to live in Seattle, the rising city named for her father. According to a city ordinance, Native Americans were forbidden to live any longer in Seattle. But Angeline ignored the White Man’s laws and continued to dig for clams.
In 1896, Curtis photographed Princess Angeline. And what a picture it is. Angeline’s face is more of a mask with warped, exaggerated features, creased and weather-beaten. Angeline’s portrait is the visible record of the impact of Manifest Destiny on the Native Americans. It made Curtis famous and set him off on the search for funding to record Angeline’s entire race for posterity.
Encounters with three of the most famous American men of the late 19th century also propelled Curtis on his audacious course.
The first was a counterpart of Princess Angeline: Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Curtis became quite close to the famous leader of the Nez Perce of Idaho and Washington Territory. The Nez Perce had saved the Lewis and Clark expedition from starvation and remained staunch allies of the United States until 1877. Bilked of their lands, Chief Joseph led the Nez Perce in a desperate escape to Canada, which failed only miles short of its goal. The tribe was then sent as virtual prisoners-of-war first to Oklahoma and then to an arid reservation in eastern Washington where the survivors dwindled due to sickness and starvation.
Curtis became quite close to Chief Joseph. He sensed the soul-crushing burden of the chief as he trekked across the U.S. in an unavailing effort to get his people restored to part of their lands. Curtis took several photos of Chief Joseph, one in full eagle-feather regalia. A less-posed view of Chief Joseph was far more revealing. Egan writes:
Then a second portrait, this one with the full upsweep of Joseph’s hair, no headdress. The light is less gauzy, more harsh, the stare intense, the frown still there but somewhat empathetic. The picture shows even more of the topography of Joseph’s extraordinary face: scars and nicks, prominent lines formed from habitual sorrow…It has multiple dimensions and conveys multiple emotions: that stare, those eyes, that hair, that mouth. It is unforgiving, without a hint of artifice, full of life even as Joseph neared his death.
This quote gives a good idea of Egan’s ability as a literary stylist and the way he is able to impart probing insight with surface details. These abilities are put to good use in the extended passages that Egan devotes to Curtis’ attempt to enlist President Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan as allies of his “Big Idea.”
“T.R.” proved a ready supporter of the plan to document in photos and sound recordings the lives of the Native Americans still in their “primitive” state. Morgan, the greatest of the Gilded Age moguls, proved a more difficult catch. Roosevelt’s recommendation was a liability in trying to get Morgan to fund the project. He resented Roosevelt’s “trust-busting” attempts to regulate American industry and finance. After a brief meeting with Curtis on January 24, 1906, he dismissed the idea of providing funds for the “Big Idea.”
Curtis refused to budge. Having failed to stroke Morgan’s ego, he spread out some of his photos on the table for Morgan to see. The portrait of Mosa the Indian Girl caught the eye of Morgan the art lover. Curtis received $75,000 in five yearly allotments.
The course of Curtis’ campaign to document the lives and life style of the Native American peoples is related by Egan with considerable detail and page-turning élan. There were plenty of incidents of physical ordeal and, in some cases, real danger. An Apache medicine man who divulged secrets of his tribe’s religious practices died under suspicious circumstances shortly after Curtis left the reservation. That fate might well have befallen Curtis – and not only at the hands of Native Americans who wished to keep their spiritual practices from the white man’s grasp. Curtis angered many Anglos, especially missionaries who were keen to wipe out all traces of Native American spirituality.
But the greatest tragedy to befall Curtis, apart from the break-up of his marriage, was the deafening silence that greeted publication of the final volumes of The North American Indian in 1930. Depression-era America cared little about the West or Native American culture. “Cowboys and Indians” was child’s play. Curtis died in obscurity on October 19, 1952.
Curtis is now so closely identified with his portraits of Native Americans that the tremendous artistry and authenticity that he brought to the American landscape is often over-looked. Two photos, both included in the book, clearly demonstrate his skill in this respect. Canyon de Chelly, 1904, and A Smokey Day at the Sugar Bowl – Hupa, 1923, are unforgettable evocations of the natural environment of North America.
Canyon de Chelly has some of the most amazing topography in North America. Curtis underscored this by taking a long distance shot in which seven Navajo riders and a solitary dog are dwarfed by the towering canyon walls. The humans in this photo are remarkable only for their insignificance. They are transitory elements, like the passing shadow of a cloud, and serve merely as a reference point for the incredible scale of the canyon’s dimensions.
In A Smokey Day at the Sugar Bowl – Hupa, Curtis captured the essence of a human being in absolute harmony with nature. A Native American from northern California leans against a fishing spear, his body mirrored in the still, shimmering water. It is an idyllic scene. But this magical realm, however much it replicated the distant past, was an illusion at the time Curtis photographed it. California had been the home of numerous small tribes, most without any warlike skills such as the Apaches and Lakota Sioux possessed in abundance. They had been massacred and enslaved by Anglo settlers during the 1800’s, atrocities that angered and disgusted Curtis. The lone fisherman in this beautiful photo was a survivor of one of the worst campaigns of genocide in American history.
Curtis was not merely the recorder of the customs and culture of a “vanishing race” that would, in fact, survive. He also documented the natural habitat of the Native Americans – and all Americans – imperishable, yet fragile and endangered by the relentless exploitation of the White Man’s “development.”
As I finished Egan’s compelling biography of Curtis, I was reminded of the reflections of Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, in the last pages of that great novel from the 1920’s. Nick came to visualize Long Island as it had once been for the first Dutch sailors, “a fresh green breast of the new world.” Curtis through his photographs and sound recordings of Native Americans eventually came in touch with the spirit and the beauty of North America in its natural state. Curtis, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “held his breath in the presence of this continent; compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”