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Book Review: "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher" by Timothy Egan

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You don't have to be a westerner to appreciate Edward Curtis's photos from a hundred years ago. His sepia prints show native people on horseback or in dugout canoes. His portraits are of solemn faces looking at the camera, bodies decorated with traditional clothing and ornaments. The Curtis photos are a treasured resource to America's past. Betsy Kepes has this review of Timothy Egan's new biography, "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis."

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

Egan writes with flair and his book has the arc of a Shakespearean tragedy. Born in Wisconsin in 1868, Edward Curtis was a teen when his father died. He mortgaged the family farm to get enough cash to partner in a photography studio in Seattle. The business flourished thanks to Curtis's innovative and beautiful portraits.

But Curtis couldn't stay still. He left the city to photograph Mt. Rainier and the native people who still lived in the green bays of the Pacific Northwest. In 1900 he had his "Big Idea." He would compile a photographic and ethnographic record of the native people of North America, creating a luxurious twenty-volume set of books. The project would consume his life for 33 years.

The middle chapters of "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher" are filled with adventures as Curtis travels to remote parts of the West to learn from the Blackfeet people, the Hopi and the Apache. His photos caught the attention of Teddy Roosevelt and Curtis spent weeks at the Roosevelt's summer home on Long Island, invited there to photograph the president's children.

Curtis knew many of the rich and famous men of the era, and the first two volumes of his work earned extravagant praise, but he couldn't generate enough cash to fund his long expeditions into Indian country. Finally, in 1906, Curtis found support from one of the most powerful men of the age—J. Pierrepont Morgan. The financier agreed to fund the expeditions, but Curtis would have to sell 500 subscriptions to the book set if he wanted to make any money for himself.

Traveling constantly, Curtis rarely rested or slept. He wanted to document the American Indian before a way of life was completely gone. Egan writes "Curtis would always side with the old, no matter how much it had been supplanted, because the fast-disappearing past, he felt, was the authentic. The twentieth century had no place in the nascent Curtis Indian project." Curtis photographed and interviewed the Navaho, the Nez Perce and tribes along the Columbia River. Each winter he holed up in a remote cabin with his colleagues where they turned their research into thick books describing customs and languages.

Yet even Curtis—a vibrant, handsome six-foot workaholic — couldn't do it all. He was always out of money, his wife divorced him, and all his get-rich-quick projects failed. When he fell into a deep depression, years passed with no work completed at all.

In 1927 Curtis, almost 60 years old, traveled to the Far North with his daughter Beth to work on his final volume of "The North American Indian." Back in Seattle he was arrested and jailed because he'd failed to pay alimony. Egan writes a great court scene. Why, asked an amazed judge, did you work for nothing for 30 years? Curtis, in tears, answered, "[I did] the only thing I could do that was worth doing. I am one of those fanatical persons who wants to finish what he starts."

When I was in Seattle in February I had the rare pleasure of viewing a copy of "The North American Indian." Curtis never had much luck as a salesman so only about 80 complete sets exist and one of them is in the Seattle Public Library. The volumes that Curtis tried to peddle for $3,000 now sell at auction for almost $2 million.

Though Curtis died unknown and in poverty, he was sure of his place in history. He wrote, "When I was through with the last volume, I did not possess enough money to buy a ham sandwich, yet the books will remain the outstanding story of the Indian."

Betsy Kepes wrote about her visit to the Seattle Public Library in a post for the All In blog. When she's not out west, Betsy writes from her home in Colton.

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