I've lately been reading a book about an American photographer named Edward Curtis, whom I consider a great American hero. Curtis is not a household name, as is all to often the case with artist heroes, who often toil in obscurity. I only recently learned about Curtis when I stumbled upon a documentary about his life. He, almost single-handedly, produced the most comprehensive photographic and literary documentation of North American Indians of the twentieth century. His monumental 20-volume work, The North American Indian, took him over 20 years to complete and cost him almost everything. But his work stands as a timeless testament to what an artist can do when he follows his dream and never gives up.
The book I'm reading came out only last year. It's called Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, by Timothy Egan, a writer who I'm beginning to really appreciate. Egan's previous book, The Worst Hard Time, about the American dustbowl during the Great Depression, won the National Book Award.
Egan writes in an accessible style, with a profound sympathy for the underdog, which makes Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher a moving and exciting journey. Edward Curtis began his career as a "society photographer" in Seattle in the late 1800s, taking fancy portraits of wealthy Seattlites, and making a good deal of money doing it. He had a family, a nice house, and a studio downtown. But his life took a profound turn when he first encountered Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, living among discarded junk in a shantytown on Puget Sound. Egan begins his book like this:
"The last Indian of Seattle lived in a shack down among the greased piers and coal bunkers of the new city, on what was then called West Street, her hovel in the grip of Puget Sound, off plumb in a rise above the tidal flats. The cabin was two rooms, cloaked in a chipped jacket of clapboards, damp inside. Shantytown was the unofficial name for this part of the city, and if you wanted to dump a bucket of cooking oil or a rusted stove or a body, this was the place to do it. It smelled of vicera, sewage and raw industry, and only when a strong breeze huffed in from the Pacific did people onshore get a brief, briny reprieve from the residual odors of their labor.
And that is where twenty-eight-year-old Edward Sheriff Curtis found princess Angeline."
Curtis took a photograph of Princess Angeline, and this became the first of his Indian pictures, a passion that would shape and inform the rest of his life. He began traveling among various tribes, learning of the degradation and injustice that had befallen the natives peoples of America. He saw this injustice and sought to use his talent as a photographer to tell another side of the American story. He sought to show the American public, through art, the humanity of the Native Americans, their customs and traditions, their religion, family life, and deep relationship with the land that was being taken from them. Popular American sentiment toward Native Americans in the 19th century was not positive. They were seen and portrayed as savages, heathens, uncivilized, inhuman. Curtis sought, though photography and writing, to shatter these myths.
And so, for the next twenty years, Curtis traveled among the tribes of North America, photographing them, making recordings of songs and dances, interviewing thousands of people, and writing about what he found. Prominent members of The Smithsonian thought him too ambitions, that he was attempting the work of 50 men. But Curtis remained undeterred, through financial hardship, and illness, he never gave up and finally completed his magnum opus, The North American Indian.