Arts & Entertainment

Review: Book tackles 'Epic Life' of photographer Edward Curtis





"Sometime in early 1896, a young Seattle photographer named Edward Sherriff Curtis, already well known for his polished studio portraits of local civic leaders and business tycoons, decided to challenge himself and photograph a very different kind of subject. He chose “Princess Angeline,” aka Kick-is-om-lo, the sole surviving child of the great Duwamish-Suquamish chief for whom the city of Seattle was named. Roughly 80 years old at the time, Angeline lived in a dilapidated shack on the shores of Puget Sound, eking out a marginal existence by washing other people’s laundry for coins. She was regarded as “the last Indian of Seattle,” and Curtis thought she might make an unusual model for an afternoon’s sitting.

The resulting portraits went on to inspire one of the most ambitious and comprehensive documentary projects in the history of American photography. Impressed by Angeline’s dignity and quiet power, Curtis soon began seeking out members of other Northwestern tribes to record on film. And within a few years, he had conceived what Timothy Egan, in “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” calls his Big Idea”: “to photograph all intact Indian communities left in North America, to capture the essence of their lives before that essence disappeared.”

Egan’s account of Curtis’s life is not so much a traditional biography as a vivid exploration of one man’s lifelong obsession with an idea. “The North American Indian,” Curtis’s massive, 20-volume work, ended up consuming the photographer for more than three decades, in the process nearly destroying him both physically and financially. Granted, Curtis’s life may not have been as “epic” as Egan indicates in his subtitle, but it was an eventful journey. More important, it left a significant legacy: Curtis’s magnum opus — consisting of 40,000 photographs, 10,000 recorded songs, 75 language glossaries, and transcriptions of countless myths, rituals and stories — is now regarded as a monument of American cultural achievement."

Get the Story:
“Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher : The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis” by Timothy Egan (The Washington Post 01/13)

Related Stories:
Blog: Edward Curtis captured humanity of the first Americans (10/12)