Candy Moulton: Reading the West 12-17-12
December 17, 2012
You may (or may not) recognize the name Edward Curtis, but almost certainly you would recognize some of the photographs he made early in the 20th century. He traveled among the American Indians seeking information and the chance to take pictures, many of which have become iconic.
He photographed among the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, on the Plains, in the Southwest and in other regions. Patrons such as President Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan supported his work. Morgan funded much of the travel and production necessary for Curtis to meet with the tribes, though interestingly Morgan's checks provided no salary at all for the photographer; instead Curtis was to earn that through sales of the books he created (a situation that meant for much of his life he struggled to make ends meet).
Curtis's photographic career began in Seattle where he built a respected studio trade before taking a picture of Princess Angeline, the "last" native resident of the city, daughter of Chief Seattle. That photo and one taken of the great Nez Perce Chief Joseph in 1904 launched Curtis toward a study of Indians that would push him to travel the West, strain — eventually break — his marriage, and lead him to the point of personal financial ruin. But it gave the nation and the world of ethnology a phenomenal resource: the 20-volume collection The North American Indian.
Although Morgan provided funding for Curtis's work, there was no money for the photographer's time. He relied on sale of photograph prints from his studio business in Seattle to earn a wage.
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Timothy Egan has delivered a biography, "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis," that is as compelling and powerful as the photos Curtis made.
Egan's sympathetic account is riveting. As you read, you'll want to review the photographs that are so vividly described. A tribute to Curtis, this is also a tribute to the many men and women who labored beside him though three decades of painstaking work that was rejected initially by scholars and "learned men."
If Curtis did nothing else, he proved that a good education does not always come from inside a schoolroom or college. What he learned in the field of life created his legacy. And now Egan has completed the circle with a masterful book. ❖