I first came across Edward S. Curtis’ photography in “Puchteca,” a Native American art gallery in Flagstaff, AZ, in 2010 and was hooked on his unique and monumental work, The North American Indian, a 20-volume set published in the early 1900s. Then I received a copy of Egan’s biography of Curtis for Christmas, 2012 and dove in headlong. What an amazing story of this one-of-a-kind, 6th-grade-educated man’s focused dedication, spirit of adventure and self-confidence as he set out and spent all of his adult life preserving images of the cultures of some 80 American Indian tribes. His work includes not only stunning photography, but music and lyrics of songs, alphabets and lexicons of their languages, descriptions and photographs of their daily lives and cherished rituals.
Egan’s story is much more than a chronicle, though. He adeptly captured the complex character of the man — not a perfect man, by any means — in all his confidence and bravado, his self-effacing dedication to his work in spite of all obstacles, his growing apprehension of the plight, and revulsion at mistreatment, of the Indians, and his obsession with the work. This is another of those historical pieces of literature that rises well above the norm and captures a riveting life. I was even more captivated by the fact that Edward Curtis was a product of Seattle as it grew into adolescence in the late nineteenth-century Alaskan gold rush era, founded his photography studio in Seattle with brother Asahel Curtis, and started his family here.
I highly recommend Timothy Egan’s Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher and know you’ll enjoy the reading!
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