Arts & Entertainment

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





"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)

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