Friday, December 27, 2013

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Eagan

My good friend, Carlie, sent this book along to me with a note that she could not put it down.  I read it in October and though it started rather slowly I was drawn into the story of the life of Edward Curtis who dedicated his life to photographic preservation of the American Indians of the west in the late 1890's and early 1900's.  Starting to read, I was not familiar with Edward but when I saw some of the photos included in this wonderful biography particularly that iconic marvelous sepia of Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce I realized I had indeed some familiarity with Curtis having seen his photos in travels through the West particularly in exhibits about Native Americans.  
Chief Joseph

This book winner of the National  ook Award, published by Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcort, in 2013 of 325 pages supplemented by an index and 25 pages of notes and sources presents a history of the early days of photography as well as of the Indians through the tragic  life of Curtis.  He's born in February 1868 in Whitewater, WI, the second of  four children to Johnson Curtis and Ellen Sheriff, a dirt poor family.  His schooling is only through the sixth grade because at 14  he went to work on the railroad to support the family.  The hard luck of the father plagues Edward too who moves with him to Puget Sound to homestead in the fall of 1887; they send for Ellen and the two youngest siblings in May 1888 but Johnson dies three days after their arrival. At only 20 Ed is the sole support again of the family but at 22 suffers a severe fall at work and is bedridden for a year, the hard luck of the father almost seems hereditary.  While he is healing he is inspired to photography, by 1891 he is off to Seattle and marries Clara who visited him while he was bedridden.   By 1895 they have a son and Curtis is  rather successful in Seattle so he brings  his mother, siblings and Clara's sister to live with them.  He and his brother Asahel "have an explosive spat" over photographs and never speak again. 

Edward Curtis
Soon the rush north to Alaska and the Klondike gold are in full swing and while mountaineering on Mt Ranier Curtis  rescues Grinnell and Merrian, eastern naturalists and explorers whom he hosts at his studio showroom later.  They are intrigued with his photographs, pg. 32..."His Indians were a startling departure from the usual depictions of these people.  There were in the faces, human beings, not character types."   .. "Good pictures, Curtis explained, are not products of chance, but come from long hours of study."  Grinnell and Merrian return east but stay in touch with him and in spring 1899 they ask him to join them in the largest  scientific exploration of Alaska where he had previously traveled.  It was to be the last great exploratory expedition of its kind in North America dating to Lewis and Clark, 100 years earlier.  (pg.34)  May 1899 he accompanies them on the steamship along with supplies, livestock and the two best known natrualists in America, John Muir and John Burroughs and Gifford Pinchot, a man of the woods fro a wealthy family.  But I cannot continue to tell the full tragic tale, you must read this for yourself.  His epoch works with Indians, living amongst them over years  earns him the ShadowCatcher" name from Arizona Indians.  He never really achieves the fame during life that he earned  despite  being befriended by President Teddy Roosevelt and backed financially and then clearly shafted by J.P.Morgan and the Morgan survivors.  He comes close to recognition but the black cloud always rises, so it is not a happy story, it is a story of a real life.  On October 19, 1952 Curtis died of a heart attack living in  a small apartment in Beverly Hills, CA; his last years were not pleasant although he tried to capture and document some of his memories for his children s children, he had suffered, become nearly blind and grew crankier.   

The last paragraph of the epilogue, pgs. 324-325 sums the tale, "Though Edward Curtis never made a dime producing what was arguably  the most expansive and comprehensive publication undertaken by a single citizen of the US though  he went to his death without the acknowledgement he so wanted in life, and though he paid for his obsession with the loss of friends, a marriage and the irreplaceable hours of watching a family bloom, he always believed his words and pictures would come to life long after he'd passed--the artist's  lasting reward of immortality.  A young man with an unlived in face found his calling in the faces of a continent's forgotten people, and in so doing he not only saw history, but made it."    

I give this book 5 stars *****; a tragic tale that made my heart ache but taught me a lot of history and meanings of many Indian words.    
Back cover of the book