Timothy Egan. Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.
Few researchers who have studied Native American cultures have inspired such a wide divergence of opinion as Edward S. Curtis (18681952), the quixotic photographer who devoted thirty years of his life to The North American Indian, a twenty-volume set of brown-ink photogravures and related materials published between 1907 and 1930. His aim (which became a full-blown obsession) was to document every Native American "tribe" that still adhered to traditions predating the incursion of European American land grabbers, railroads, fences, Indian agents, and missionaries. Curtis, considered by some to be a hero of ethnographic documentation, has also been criticized as a manipulator who did not hesitate to stage scenes for the camera's lens and an opportunist who paid subjects and sometimes resorted to bribery to gain access to sacred objects not meant to be seen by the uninitiated. Egan's new book does much to explain Curtis's methods and motives, the difficulties and vicissitudes of his work, and the broader contexts of his "Big Idea" (41). Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher restores him to his rightful place as a sensitive master photographer and a staunch advocate for indigenous rights.
Curtis terminated his formal schooling after the sixth grade. He learned woodcraft during forays with his preacher father to spread the Gospel to Native Americans in the Midwest and assumed responsibility at the age of fourteen for supporting his family. He earned money as a laborer and gathered food for the table while prowling the woods. The "outdoors, the open country" Egan suggests, "was a church Ed Curtis could feel at home in" (3). In 1887 he moved from Wisconsin to Puget Sound, where land opportunities had opened following the displacement of the Natives. At twenty-two, after a spinal injury, he took up photography as a way of making a living that did not require heavy labor. He married and established himself as a successful portrait photographer in Seattle. His first Native American pictures featured Princess Angeline (15-16, 21), who lived in a shack on the edge of the expanding city, the last surviving child of Chief Seattle. He paid her a dollar.
Curtis's interest in recording Native American faces, clothing, artifacts, and activities grew with the consciousness that the world inhabited by Natives was rapidly changing. Deliberate attempts were being made by missionaries and governments to erase indigenous cultures. Around 1900 Curtis approached some influential contacts, soliciting financial support for a Native American documentary project. Pluck (and ingratiation) eventually landed a promise from J. P. Morgan to fund a five-year project involving location photography, interviews, and other documentary tasks. Curtis naively underestimated the time and money he would need to document eighty cultures, recklessly undertook to provide his own services at no charge, and conceded that Morgan would assume responsibility only for direct expenses associated with the fieldwork. According to the terms of the agreement, all publication costs had to be met by Curtis himself through advance sales of subscriptions to The North American Indian.
Egan details Curtis's troubles and triumphs as he crisscrossed the United States and Canada, season by season and year after year from 1900 to 1927, chronically short of cash, braving physical hardships and suspicious Natives, sidestepping repressive laws aimed at quashing indigenous ceremonies, and attempting to sell subscriptions to institutions and wealthy individuals. The book reads like an adventure travelogue. The many dangers faced by Curtis on his fieldtrips include being stranded overnight on a submerged Alaskan rock as the cold, rising tide slapped his shins; risking arrest for encouraging outlawed rituals; being threatened by Natives who believed that the presence of a white man taking pictures was the cause of a child's serious illness; bobbing and lurching in a small boat through rampaging river rapids; and having to stand still while writhing rattlesnakes coiled around his unprotected neck.
The ambitious project, as Curtis characterized it, was a race against time. He freely acknowledged that he staged scenes and arranged props to get the images he wanted for posterity, scenes that purported to represent Native experience as it once was. This manipulation often happened in the field but was sometimes contrived in the darkroom as well. An often cited example of the latter was the deletion of an unwanted alarm clock during photographic processing (197). The world Curtis opted to re-create had no place for alarm clocks or the white man's regulated habits those clocks symbolized. Detractors point to the lack of authenticity in Curtis's Native American photographs. But perhaps his work is best considered in context with his near contemporary, Alfred Stieglitz, whose Photo-Secession movement promoted and justified photography's claims to art.
Curtis took some forty thousand photographs of Native Americans, ranging from the Southwest to Alaska, recorded ten thousand songs, collected vocabularies, attempted pronunciation guides for seventy-five Native languages, and described or transcribed many religious stories, myths, legends, and rituals. Some fifteen hundred photogravures were selected for binding in the twenty-volume set, supplemented by seven hundred unbound portfolio plates. The North American Indian may be "the largest anthropological enterprise ever undertaken" (322). In 1914, largely in hopes of making money to subsidize additional expeditions, Curtis shot a fiction film about precontact Kwakiutl characters and situations, In the Land of the War Canoes. It was the first movie made with an all-Native American cast, predating Robert Flaherty's classic Nanook of the North by eight years. The film, now available on DVD, is mesmerizing.
Reading the lively text and poring over the evocative photographs in Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is a compelling experience. Some of the more striking pictures in the book include Mosa--Mohave, showing the face of a young girl with whom J. P. Morgan was apparently smitten (118); Before the Storm--Apache, four Natives on horseback highlighted against an ominous sky (135); Cabob de Chelly, Navajo riders filing past towering monuments of stone (158); A Heavy Load--Sioux, a woman wrapped in blankets trudging through snow after gathering firewood (176); Eagle Catcher--Hidatsa, a man holding a bird of prey is himself perched on a precipitous crag (192); The Fisherman--Wishwam, a Chinook man netting salmon in churning rapids (205); and Woman and Child, an infant on Nunivak Island clinging to its mother in a profusion of commingled furs (288).
Genuine documentary photographs and films record people and situations as they are, not as they once were. But the photographs that resulted from Curtis's craft are among the most haunting and beautiful pictures ever taken. As Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday wrote about his early encounters with Curtis's oeuvre, "Taken as a whole, the work of Edward Curtis is a singular achievement ..., a moment lost in time, a moment I had known only in my imagination.... 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." (222).
As a younger man, Curtis was reluctant to publicly criticize the treatment of Native Americans. As time passed, he expressed his views openly. "We have wronged the Indian from the beginning," he told the press. "The white man's sins against him did not cease with ... the final cartridge in the wars which subjugated him in his own country. Our sins of peace have been far greater than our sins of war" (218). As Curtis's compulsion to complete The North American Indian grew, so too did escalating demands from his estranged wife for financial support. In the end, he lost nearly everything to his wife in a divorce settlement and to his creditors as a result of increasingly stringent agreements. He died penniless, like Civil War photographer Matthew Brady and other visionaries who abandoned stable careers to pursue massive documentary projects.
Unfortunately, the photographs reproduced in Egan's book are lower in quality than one might expect, and readers with access to better reproductions would be well advised to refer to them while reading Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher. Digital reproductions of Curtis's brown-ink photogravures (available on the Library of Congress's "American Memory" website) are reasonably good facsimiles. Better yet, readers who can do so should travel to a rare books library that owns The North American Indian to confront and appreciate the stunningly beautiful pictures face to face. It's an experience to contemplate and remember.
Jeffrey Mifflin, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston
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|Publication:||The American Indian Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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