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Review: A glowing portrait of Edward Curtis and his 'Epic Life'

Filed Under: Arts & Entertainment
More on: books, edward curtis, photography

"Edward Curtis deserves to be remembered as the American artist who racked up the most miles. Traveling by rail, wagon and foot, he undertook a project that struck observers as ambitious and possibly insane. His goal, he said, was to salvage a heritage from oblivion, to document all the tribes in North America that were still intact.The result was his magnum opus, “The North American Indian,” a 20-volume text-and-image extravaganza, published between 1907 and 1930, that was praised and then forgotten in short order. Curtis spent his final years holed up in Southern California, living a marginal hand-to-mouth existence and consuming a pound of carrots a day in the hope of warding off blindness.

Timothy Egan offers a stirring and affectionate portrait of an underknown figure in “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.” Egan, a Seattle-based author and a writer for The New York Times, asks us to see Curtis as a hero in the mythic Western mode — i.e., outdoorsy, virile, untainted by bourgeois values. Initially a society portraitist with a studio in Seattle, he disliked commercial work and gave up a lucrative career to lug his tripod and glass-plate negatives around as he climbed Mount Rainier or descended a ladder into a Hopi kiva crawling with rattlesnakes.

Curtis’s most memorable photographs are not action shots but formal portraits in which individuals appear in sensuous, sepia-toned close-up. He seemed to place a proto-Avedonian emphasis on showing how intimate a photographer can be with his subject. Yet in Curtis’s case, the subjects were not celebrities but Native Americans."

Get the Story:
Captured on Film (The New York Times 10/28)

Related Stories:
Review: Book tackles 'Epic Life' of photographer Edward Curtis (10/15)
Blog: Edward Curtis captured humanity of the first Americans (10/12)

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