Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtisby Timothy Egan
How a lone man’s epic obsession led to one of America’s greatest cultural treasures: Prizewinning writer Timothy Egan tells the riveting, cinematic story behind the most famous photographs in Native American history — and the driven, brilliant man who made them.
Edward Curtis was charismatic, handsome, a passionate/b>
How a lone man’s epic obsession led to one of America’s greatest cultural treasures: Prizewinning writer Timothy Egan tells the riveting, cinematic story behind the most famous photographs in Native American history — and the driven, brilliant man who made them.
Edward Curtis was charismatic, handsome, a passionate mountaineer, and a famous photographer, the Annie Leibovitz of his time. He moved in rarefied circles, a friend to presidents, vaudeville stars, leading thinkers. And he was thirty-two years old in 1900 when he gave it all up to pursue his Great Idea: to capture on film the continent’s original inhabitants before the old ways disappeared.
An Indiana Jones with a camera, Curtis spent the next three decades traveling from the Havasupai at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the Acoma on a high mesa in New Mexico to the Salish in the rugged Northwest rain forest, documenting the stories and rituals of more than eighty tribes. It took tremendous perseverance — ten years alone to persuade the Hopi to allow him into their Snake Dance ceremony. And the undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate. Eventually Curtis took more than 40,000 photographs, preserved 10,000 audio recordings, and is credited with making the first narrative documentary film. In the process, the charming rogue with the grade school education created the most definitive archive of the American Indian.
His most powerful backer was Theodore Roosevelt, and his patron was J. P. Morgan. Despite the friends in high places, he was always broke and often disparaged as an upstart in pursuit of an impossible dream. He completed his masterwork in 1930, when he published the last of the twenty volumes. A nation in the grips of the Depression ignored it. But today rare Curtis photogravures bring high prices at auction, and he is hailed as a visionary. In the end he fulfilled his promise: He made the Indians live forever.
"In this hauntingly beautiful book, Egan brings Curtis to life as vividly and with as much depth, heart and understanding as Curtis himself put into his timeless portraits. This is a story for the ages." Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic
"An obsessive genius neglects his personal life and business matters to pursue a great white whale. It's a familiar tale and the essential narrative of Egan's terrific biography. . . . Egan fills his chronicle with bright turns of phrase and radiant descriptions . . . A sweeping tale about two vanishing ways of life." Wall Street Journal
"A stirring and affectionate portrait of an underknown figure." The New York Times Book Review
"Short Nights is not only the marvelous and rollicking account of life of one of America's extraordinary photographers. It is also a book about the extreme personal cost of outsized ambition. Egan has found yet another great subject, and has crafted yet another great narrative around it."S.C. Gwynne, author of Empire of the Summer Moon
"In this extraordinary biography, Tim Egan has revealed a great American adventurer who lived at the fragile, fertile intersection of history, anthropology, and art."Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder
"A vivid exploration of one man's lifelong obsession with an idea . . .Egan's spirited biography might just bring [Curtis] the recognition that eluded him in life."Washington Post "Egan is a muscular storyteller and his book is a rollicking page-turner with a colorfully drawn hero."San Francisco Chronicle
"A stunning portrait of Edward Curtis that captures every patina of his glory, brilliance, and pathos."Christian Science Monitor
"Egan brings liveliness and a wealth of detail to his biography of the legendary photographer . . . A riveting biography." - Boston Globe
"Insightful and entetaining . . . Egan's excellent book stands as a fitting tribute to an American original who fought for a people with his camera and his art."Los Angeles Times
"[A] captivating tribute to a treasured American and the treasures he created."Dallas Morning News
In 1900, photographer Edward Curtis (1868-1952) made a decision that changed his life and, in a sense, made him mortal. He largely abandoned his lucrative portrait studio work and began a thirty-year project to record images of Native Americans who, he believed, were doomed to extinction, destroyed his marriage and left him destitute. This biography by National Book Award winner Timothy Egan (The Worst Hard Times; The Big Burn) artfully tells the story of a man both entrapped by his time and ahead of it. Now in trade paperback and NOOK Book.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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- 9.10(w) x 6.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Read an Excerpt
The last Indian of Seattle lived in a shack down among the greased piers and coal bunkers of the new city, on what was then called West Street, her hovel in the grip of Puget Sound, off plumb in a rise above the tidal flats. The cabin was two rooms, cloaked in a chipped jacket of clapboards, damp inside. Shantytown was the unofficial name for this part of the city, and if you wanted to dump a bucket of cooking oil or a rusted stove or a body, this was the place to do it. It smelled of viscera, sewage and raw industry, and only when a strong breeze huffed in from the Pacific did people onshore get a brief, briny reprieve from the residual odors of their labor.
The city was named for the old woman’s father, though the founders had trouble pronouncing See-ahlsh, a kind of guttural grunt to the ears of the midwesterners freshly settled at the far edge of the continent. Nor could they fathom how to properly say Kick-is-om-lo, his daughter. So the seaport became Seattle, much more melodic, and the eccentric Indian woman was renamed Princess Angeline, the oldest and last surviving child of the chief of the Duwamish and Suquamish. Seattle died in 1866; had the residents of the village on Elliott Bay followed the custom of his people, they would have been forbidden to speak his name for at least a year after his death. As it was, his spirit was insulted hourly, at the least, on every day of that first year. “Princess” was used in condescension, mostly. How could this dirty, toothless wretch living amid the garbage be royalty? How could this tiny beggar in calico, bent by time, this clam digger who sold bivalves door to door, this laundress who scrubbed clothes on the rocks, be a princess?
“The old crone” was a common term for Angeline.
“Ragged remnant of royalty” was a more fanciful description. She was famous for her ugliness. Nearly blind, her eyes a quarter-rise slit without noticeable lashes. Said to have a single tooth, which she used to clamp a pipe. A face often compared to a washrag. The living mummy of Princess Angeline was a tourist draw, lured out for the amusement of visiting dignitaries. When she met Benjamin Harrison, the shaggy-bearded twenty-third president of the United States, during his 1891 trip to Puget Sound, the native extended a withered hand and shouted “Kla-how-ya,” a traditional greeting. Though she clearly knew many English phrases, she refused to speak the language of the new residents.
“Nika halo cumtuv,” her contemporaries quoted her as saying. “I cannot understand.”
Angeline was nearly alone in using words that had clung like angel hair to the forested hills above the bay for centuries. Lushootseed, the Coast Salish dialect, was her native tongue, once spoken by about eight thousand people who lived all around the inland sea, their hamlets holding to the higher ground near streams that delivered the tyee, also called the Chinook or king salmon, to the doorsteps of their big-boned timber lodges. “Angeline came to our house shortly before her death,” a granddaughter of one of the city’s founders remembered. “She sat on a stool and spoke in native tongue. We forgot her ugliness and her grumpiness and realized as never before the tragedy of her life and that of all Indians.”
They could appreciate the tragedy, of course, in an abstract, vaguely sympathetic way, because they had no doubt that Indians would soon disappear from what would become the largest city on the continent named for a Native American. Well before the twentieth century dawned, there was a rush to the past tense in a country with plenty of real, live indigenous people in its midst. Angeline, by the terms of the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, was not even allowed to reside in town; the pact said the Duwamish and Suquamish had to leave, get out of sight, move across the bay to a sliver of rocky ground set aside for the aborigines. The bands who had lived by the rivers that drained the Cascade Mountains gave up two million acres for a small cash settlement, one blanket and four and a half yards of cloth per person. Eleven years later, Seattle passed a law making it a crime for anyone to harbor an Indian within the city limits.
Angeline ignored the treaty and the ordinance. She refused to move; she had no desire to live among the family clans and their feuds on the speck of reservation land that looked back at the rising sun. The Boston Men, as older Indians called the wave of Anglos from that distant port, allowed tiny Angeline to stay put — a free-to-roam sovereign outcast in the land of her ancestors. She was harmless, after all: a quaint, colorful connection to a vanquished past. Poor broken Angeline. Is she still here, in that dreadful shack? God, what a piteous sight. She was even celebrated in verse by the early mythologists of Seattle:
Her wardrobe was a varied one
Donated by most everyone.
But Angeline deemed it not worthwhile
To put on others’ cast-off style!
And much preferred a plain bandanna
To ’kerchief silk from far Havana.
The children of the new city, the American boys in short pants, had no verse or kind words for her. Angeline was prey. Great fun. They taunted the gnarled Indian, threw rocks at her. These urchins would lurk around the waterfront after school, looking to catch Angeline by surprise, then they would fire their stones at her and watch her squawk in befuddlement.
“You old hag!” the boys shouted.
But she gave as good as she got. Under those layers of filthy skirts, Angeline carried rocks for self-defense. She didn’t leave the shack without ammunition. She didn’t hide or retreat, but instead would sink an arthritic hand into one of her many pockets, find a stone and let it rip back at the boys. Take that, you bastards! Once, she hit Rollie Denny, he of the founding family whose name was all over the plats of the fast-expanding city. Hit him square with a rock for all to see, at the corner of Front Street and Madison. This also became part of the verse, the poetic myth: the crippled, sickly, elfin descendant of Chief Seattle nailed the snot-nosed kid, heir to much of the land taken from the native people.
For once he hit her with a stone
And she hit him back and made him moan!
No one was certain of Angeline’s age. Some accounts said she was near one hundred, though that surely was an exaggeration. Most placed her at about eighty. The year 1896 was particularly hard on the princess. For days at a time she kept to her cabin, which she shared off and on with a roustabout grandchild. The boy was born to Angeline’s daughter, who had been living with a white drunk, Joe Foster, who beat her on a regular basis. After putting up with the abuse for years, the woman strung a rope from the rafters of her home and hanged herself. From then on, Joe Foster Jr. was in Angeline’s care. When the Indian was sick, people left baskets of food on her doorstep, though feral dogs would sometimes get to the food before the princess could. Whenever a church lady stopped by, Angeline would wave her off. A glimpse inside her cabin found dirty dishes stacked high, a cold bunk, cobwebs in the corners, Joe Foster Jr. nowhere in sight.
She had a deep cough, from tobacco smoke and the ambient chill. They cared about Angeline, these fine women of new Seattle, because for all her surface squalor she was believed to be saintly. “She is the only Indian woman I know whose morals are above reproach,” said one of the church ladies. A backhanded compliment, to be sure, but a contrast to the characterization of another member of a Seattle pioneer family. “The Indians at best are but a poor, degraded race,” wrote Catherine Blaine, wife of the Reverend Blaine, in a letter home to the Midwest, “far inferior to even the lowliest among you.” The reverend had a harsher view. “The coarse, filthy, debased natives,” he called the inhabitants of this beautiful region. “Pitiable objects of neglect and degradation,” he wrote. “They lie, gamble, steal, get drunk and all other bad things almost as a matter of duty.”
The good ladies insisted that Angeline seek medical attention. She must not spend another day in the sloping shack by the shore or she would soon die. Against her will, the Indian was taken to the hospital up the hill. There she sat, sphinxlike, not saying a word. A doctor got her to put down her cane, take the pipe out of her mouth, remove the scarf and bandanna, and strip away a few layers of skirt. She had been diagnosed with pneumonia once before, and this current bronchial congestion and deep wheezing indicated another round of a feared and possibly fatal sickness. She needed care, the doctors told the church ladies, a warm, clean bed, some ointments and hot soup at the least. But Angeline was done with this place. When the doctor left the room, she quickly put the layers back on, wrapped her scarf around her head, reached for her pipe and cane, and fled, rocks clanking in her pockets. Out the door she went, mumbling, mumbling. What was that she said? Something about the hospital being a skookum house — a white man’s jail. Away she went to the shore, to her shack, to the reliable music of water slapping sea rocks. Enough of the church ladies and their nickels and baked goods and castoffs, enough of the doctors and their probing instruments.
And that is where twenty-eight-year-old Edward Sherriff Curtis found Princess Angeline. He knew of her, of course. Everyone did. Despite her ugliness — or, more likely, because of it — she was the most famous person in Seattle, her image on china plates and other knickknacks sold to visitors who flooded into Puget Sound as the weather warmed. A sketch of her face once adorned the pages of the New York Sun, which hailed her as “the pet of the city.” If she was not the actual last Indian of Seattle, people in town certainly treated her that way: her very existence served as a living expression of how one way of life was far inferior to the other, and that it was the natural order of things for these native people to pass on. Just look at her.
“Your God is not our God! Your God loves your people and hates mine!”
So said Chief Seattle himself in his famous treaty speech. Well, maybe not. His translator, Dr. Henry A. Smith, was an eloquent fabulist, and only relayed these words many years after the Duwamish tribal head had passed away, in 1866. But for the inheritors of a moisture-kissed land so stunning it was hailed by the British explorer George Vancouver in 1792 as “exhibiting everything that bounteous nature could be expected to draw into one point of view,” they expressed the prevailing sentiment. And so these haunted words went into the chief’s mouth, the speech refined along the way as it was chiseled into American history and twined to the city’s creation myth.
“Our people are ebbing away like a rapidly receding tide that will never return.”
“A few more moons, a few more winters and not one of the descendants of the mighty hosts that once moved over this broad land or lived in happy homes protected by the Great Spirit will remain to mourn over the graves of a people once more powerful and hopeful than yours.”
“These shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe.”
When Curtis saw Angeline moving along the shore, the visible nearly dead, using that cane of hers more like a blind woman trying to find her way than an old lady struggling for balance, she looked at once like the perfect subject. There against the deep waters of Puget Sound, there with the snow-mantled Olympic Mountains framed behind her, there with the growl of earth-digging machines and the snorts of steamships and loading crews and the clatter of streetcars and trolleys — with all of that, Curtis saw a moment from a time before any white man had looked upon these shores. He saw a person and nature, one and the same in his mind, as they belonged. A frozen image of a lost time: he must take that picture before she passed.
Curtis had come bounding down the steep hill from the big house into which he had just moved his ever-expanding family, at 413 Eighth Avenue. And what a vision of style, manliness and ambition he presented. He was positively glowing as he moved, already a master of the fastest-growing city in the American West. With his six-foot-two-inch frame, he towered over Angeline. His Vandyke beard, his polished boots, his hat tipped rakishly to one side, barely above the heavy-lidded eyes, made him look like a bit of a dandy. There was style to his swagger. He had the kind of charisma that came from a combination of looks, confidence and good luck. “He has a dreamy, sort of drawly voice,” one male admirer wrote. “His blue eyes are sleepy ones with a half-subdued air of humor lurking in their depths.”
But what the merchants who waved to him and bid him “Good morning, Mr. Curtis” and the strangers who smiled warmly at the sleepy-eyed man in full did not know was how much of his persona was forced, a creation young Curtis had forged in a remarkably short period of time.
Yes, he owned the fancy studio downtown, six blocks from home, with a portrait-filled parlor that alone was worth a visit. Yes, he was married to a gorgeous woman, dark-haired and intelligent, with one child and a second on the way, and they shared that house up the hill with his mother and other family members. And yes, the discerning Argus, well read in the region by the well fed, had pronounced Curtis and his partner the leading photographers of Puget Sound a mere five years after Curtis mortgaged the family homestead to buy into a picture shop. “One of the greatest examples of business energy and perseverance to be found in Seattle today,” the paper said. If you had any money and beauty, or desired both, it was de rigueur to pose for the master who worked behind the standing lens at Curtis and Guptill, Photographers and Photoengravers. The things they could do: the shadows, the painterly effects, the daring nudes (not advertised)! It was portrait photography — art — a bit risky for its intimacy and far ahead of the routine pictures that every family of means displayed in its drawing room. The finished picture could be printed on a gold or silver plaque, a method that was “original to Curtis and Guptill,” the Argus noted, “brilliant and beautiful beyond description.”
Curtis had developed a reputation for finding the true character of his subjects. He did the civic leaders — Judge Thomas Burke, the progressive hero who had stood up to a mob trying to force the Japanese out of Seattle by rifle and pitchfork. And the Gilded Age rich — Samuel Hill, public gadfly and railroad man, who dreamed of building a European castle on a bluff above the Columbia River. But he also captured the face of the trolley car driver who had saved a month’s pay to sit before Curtis in his spiffy uniform, of the sailor who planned his shore leave around a session in front of the camera. He brought out the radiance of the young strivers, women of seventeen convinced that a Curtis portrait was a passport to a better life. Visiting celebrities were guided to the studio, there to be charmed by the tall, dashing young man with the silk ribbon around his hat, smoking cigarettes between takes, constantly in motion, in and out of the dark veil that cloaked his camera. In the manner of the instant cities that looked out to the Pacific, Curtis had risen so quickly, had come from so little to be so much. If only they knew. But this was the Far West, where a man’s past, once it was discarded, buried or lost in a distant land, stayed that way.
What Angeline did to stay alive, the grubbing and foraging and digging and cutting, was what Ed Curtis had done in his early years. Curtis had been the clam digger, up to his knees in Puget Sound muck. Curtis had been the berry picker, his arms sliced with surface cuts from rummaging through thorny thickets above the shore. Curtis had scraped away at whatever he could find in the tidal flats, whatever could be felled or milled or monetized to keep a family fed. He’d lived a subsistence life, his hands a pair of blistered claws, his joints raw from the rock-moving and log-rolling, just like the crone in the red scarf. His father was called, in the term of the day, dirt poor. A Civil War private and army chaplain, Johnson A. Curtis was sickly and in foul temper for much of the great conflict; after being discharged, he never found his way or recovered his health. One thing he brought home from the dreary War Between the States was a camera lens. Not a camera, just the lens. It sat for a dozen years, untouched. Johnson Curtis married Ellen Sherriff, stern-faced and bushy-browed, started a family — Edward was the second child of four, born near Whitewater, Wisconsin, on February 16, 1868 — and bounced around the rural hamlets of Le Sueur County, Minnesota, trying to turn the ground for food or a soul for Jesus. He was miserable, a complete failure. Ed Curtis supplemented the meager offerings at the family table with snapping turtles and muskrats he caught in the creek; one made a soup, the other could be smoked and eaten as a snack. It was never enough.
Education, sporadic at best, was in a one-room schoolhouse. The sickly father, when he felt up to it, hit the road spreading Bible verses. The preacher took his boy along on many of his ministry forays. They went by canoe, just as the Indians had done, plying the waterways of still wild Minnesota. Ed learned to make a fire and cook a meal out of whatever fish or salamander he could find or warm-blooded critter he could shoot. The gothic Christianity of the United Brethren Church was not for him; it was so joyless, so life-smothering with its rules and prohibitions. But the outdoors, the open country — there was a church Ed Curtis could feel at home in. His formal schooling ended in sixth grade. About the same time, at the age of twelve, he discovered his father’s Civil War lens. Following instructions in Wilson’s Photographics, he built a camera consisting of two boxes, one inside the other. It was a primitive device, but transformative and thrilling, for it could capture life in the marshes of Minnesota and in the faces of family and friends. It made young Curtis feel like something other than a mule.
When his oldest brother, Raphael, left the house, Curtis had to put the camera aside. The preacher grew more sickly and useless. The fatal taint of the war had never left him. At fourteen, Ed Curtis inherited a heavy burden: he would have to support the whole family, including both parents. He got a job working for the railroad, rising to become a supervisor. Because of his height, he looked much older than his actual age. He killed muskrat and turtle still, brought more fish to the family table, tilled a large garden, used his earnings for cloth and sugar and tobacco. The winter of 1886–87 nearly finished off the Curtis family. The preacher was bedridden during the cold months, wailing and complaining. In the spring, the fledgling crops of the new season died in a seizure of frost. The money from the rail job dried up after one of the periodic panics that shut down the unregulated American economy. Broke, facing real hunger and no future, the Curtis family was left with no option but to look west.
In the fall of 1887, Ed Curtis and his father arrived in the Puget Sound area, which was opening up to land opportunists after treaties had removed most of the Indian, and all of the British, claims to the region. Danes, Swedes and other Nordics were flooding into Washington Territory, marveling at how the fjords and forests reminded them of northern Europe. Irish and Germans came because of good word of mouth from family members. But mostly, the fresh-starters were other midwesterners, leaving the flatlands after the economic busts of the 1880s for another chance at a tabula rasa. Here was Eden in the mist. “Bays within bays, inlets on inlets, seas linking seas — over 12,000 square miles of surface, the waters come and go, rise and fall, past a splendid succession of islands, promontories, walls of forest and towering mountains,” a reporter for the Atlantic Monthly wrote, describing perhaps the most primeval patch of temperate zone then under the American flag. “The old Indian names which still haunt the shores heighten the illusion. The wilderness is dominant still.”
That first winter for the Curtis homesteaders was wet but mild — the lows seldom falling below freezing, snowfall a rarity even though the region is farther north in latitude than Maine. The Curtis men claimed a piece of land across the water from Seattle, near a town called Sydney. Their acreage was crowded with evergreens, alders and maples, and sloped down to the sound. In the clearing, Ed Curtis could look out at tall ships on the way to Seattle, Tacoma and Port Townsend, and could see what would become a magnificent obsession — the 14,411-foot cone of Mount Rainier. From sea level to the glacial top, Rainier was the highest freestanding mountain in the United States. Everywhere Curtis turned, he took in a view dramatically unlike the Midwest. On one side were the Olympics, which held their snow until midsummer, and on the other side were the Cascades, the spine that ran down the entire midsection of the territory, dividing it between a wet half and a dry. Water was the dominant element and master architect. The green was all-encompassing.
Edward cut down spruce trees — light, straight, easily split softwood — on the family claim and built a cabin with the timber. The centerpiece was a stone fireplace, which heated the home fine. Fruit trees were planted. A big garden was established. The rest of the family — a teenage girl Eva, the youngest boy Asahel and the preacher’s wife Ellen — bundled up their belongings in the spring of 1888 and took the train out west to join the men. But just as the light of May was bringing the land to life, the old man took a turn for the worse. He had pneumonia when his family arrived, with no appetite and no energy. The Reverend Johnson Curtis died three days after the reunion.
At age twenty, Ed Curtis took up where he had left off before the move, trying to support the clan. He fished. The salmon were huge — big Chinooks weighed thirty pounds or more — and millions of them flooded the waterways that emptied into Puget Sound; all a man had to do was be minimally alert and modestly competent with net or pole. He fixed things for hire, helping widows and disabled men with bent axles and faulty stoves and broken plows. He picked berries. The orange ones, salmonberries, were the most exotic; the purple ones, huckleberries, the tastiest, though he had to hike into the foothills to get at them. He plucked oysters from the mud, dug clams, chipped mussels from half-submerged logs. He cut wood, splitting firs and spruce for house-framing purposes, and alder and maple for stove fuel. He aspired to fulfill his father’s dream to open a brickyard. In a formal photograph taken not long after Reverend Curtis died, Edward is the image of earnest ambition: clean-shaven, strong-jawed, a white tie against a white shirt, looking resolute. But then his life came to a halt after he took a terrible fall from a log, mangling his spine. At twenty-two he could barely walk, let alone lift a beam or heft a bundle of bricks. Just like his father, Curtis was confined to bed for almost a year, “limp, thin and bleached,” a neighbor boy recalled.
It was awful not being able to get around, watching his mother put together a meal of boiled potatoes and bacon grease. Out the window, though, was a world that gave flight to his spirit. He became a close observer: how the color of the land would change subtly in shifting light, the moments in midmorning when the fog lifted, or breaks in the afternoon between rain showers, when he could see the spectrum of the rainbow in a single drop held by a rhododendron leaf.
A sixteen-year-old girl, Clara Phillips, started visiting the bedridden man in the homestead cabin. She had a mane of thick dark hair, worn well past her shoulders, and exhibited a feisty independence. Clara’s family had moved around: from Canada to rural Pennsylvania, where she was born, and then to Puget Sound. The Phillips girls, Clara and her sister Nellie, were different from the other homesteader children; they used fancy words from books and were curious about things beyond the little community that would become Port Orchard. When she met Curtis, Clara had not yet finished with her schooling, and she fascinated him with all the things she knew that he did not. When Curtis talked of what he wanted to do when he regained his mobility, she alone seemed to believe him. There would be no more berry-picking or clam-digging, no more wood-cutting or fence-fixing, no more brickyard. He would no longer put his back into his living.
Clara visited one day and found Edward sitting up, enraptured by a contraption on the kitchen table: a 14-by-17-inch view camera, capable of holding a slice of life on a large-format glass-plate negative with such clarity it made people gasp. The camera was not cheap, the price much derided by Edward’s mother. He had bought it from a traveler looking to raise a stake on the way to goldfields. Ellen Curtis thought it was a waste: what was he going to do with that costly and fragile thing? Even Wilson’s Photographics, which Curtis had used to help build the camera back in Minnesota, had warned that photography was “a circus kind of business, and unfit for a gentleman to engage in.”
The healing invalid’s plan was bold: he would borrow $150 against the property and use the cash for a move to Seattle. He had heard about a picture studio in town, and it needed a new partner. The big, bustling place across the water was a short boat ride from home, but a world away from the sodden ground of the homestead. “They call it the Queen City and talk about its great future although it wasn’t very long ago there were Indian attacks on the town,” the preacher Johnson Curtis had written his family after he and his son put their first stakes in the ground. “It’s over 10,000 people and there’s a university in the middle of town and hills all around it. Edward says they have telephones, 120 of them!” With the 14-by-17 view camera, Curtis vowed to leave the subsistence life forever.
Newly mobile in 1891, Curtis went off to Seattle to make a go of it. What he knew about studio photography was laughable. And who would support the family? But in a new town, in a new land, he could fail almost without consequence. What he brought to the city, his sister Eva recalled, was unbridled curiosity — “always nosing into something interesting.” In Seattle the $150 stake was enough to buy Edward a name on a storefront, “Rothi and Curtis, Photographers,” and an apprenticeship to a dominating partner. Clara joined Curtis in the city, scandalizing her family. She lived in a boarding house — the same one as Curtis. Her mind was set, as was his. They married in 1892. She was eighteen, he was twenty-four.
Success came quickly. Curtis left Rothi and joined Thomas Guptill in a much bigger enterprise, a studio on Second Avenue with photoengraving facilities. The Curtis couple lived above the shop until a baby, Harold, born in 1893, prompted a move up the hill. By 1895, just four years after his prolonged convalescence, Curtis was a Seattle celebrity, his name known around the Pacific Northwest. He had money to stuff the house on Eighth Avenue with fine furniture. More importantly, it was big enough to bring the rest of the family over. His mother, his sister Eva, his brother Asahel, Clara’s sister Nellie and two of her relatives — they all moved in.
Curtis himself was seldom home. He not only mastered the artistry of working with a box to capture light and shadow and the way a personality could change with a gaze one way or a tilt of the head the other, but was equally skilled at technical details. “Finest photographic work in the city” was the claim of the studio in the Seattle directory of 1895. The next year, a Seattle paper backed that boast, predicting that “in a very few years these young men will have the largest engraving plant west of Chicago.” Curtis grew the beard that became his trademark, wore stylish clothes, learned fast how to charm the leading citizens of the city. Photoengraving was laborious; each picture was finished by hand, with a honeyed sepia tone. More than a decade earlier, George Eastman, of Rochester, New York, had developed a much easier way to process a photograph: dry gel on paper, replacing heavy plates wiped with chemicals. “You press the button, we do the rest” was the marketing slogan, put to use when the Kodak Brownie was sold starting in 1901. But Curtis wanted nothing of the shortcuts. He preferred the quality and detailing he could get with glass-plate negatives, no matter how heavy, dangerous and expensive. There was more than enough work at the studio that Curtis could hire his brother Asahel, six years younger, as an apprentice in 1895.
That Edward Curtis, at the age of twenty-seven, had made the journey from ragged forager with a dented spine to the talk of a robust town full of similar self-confident swells of the Gay Nineties would be enough for some men. But Curtis was hungry for the bigger dare. The house, the business, the family, the gadgets, the praise from the press and the nods of approval from moneyed gentlemen — it was a start. Curtis also did those nudes: bohemian, exotic women showing their nipples just above the lace, angelic faces looking bored in a gilded parlor. Curtis had left the grim-faced Christian sensibility of his father behind, like so many in the West.
His adopted city spread north, south and east, limited only by the inky depths of Puget Sound to the west. The 10,000 people Reverend Curtis had spoken of had become, in barely a decade’s time, a city of nearly 100,000, and that amount would double, and then some, in the next ten years. The climate was said to be “salubrious,” a wonderful euphemism for a place that got thirty-six inches of rain a year, most it falling between November and March. The new inhabitants, having pushed away the Indians for a pittance, and with only a few minor skirmishes, could not believe their good fortune. Here were seven hills, the highest rising to just over five hundred feet, with the cornucopia of Puget Sound lapping at one shore and the long, clear magnificence of Lake Washington on the other, a mountain lake at sea level. You could see ten feet down in the fresh, clear waters, all that glacial-rock-filtered runoff clean enough to drink.
Between the two big bodies of water were other lakes, streams and waterfalls, even a clearing of level ground where the tribes used to gather to give away things and eat until they fell over, stuffed and happy. A garden setting it was, just as the British explorer had said, requiring virtually nothing from man to improve on it. Near Pioneer Square was a low-lying island where the natives from the reservation used to park their dugout canoes, there to sell shellfish to the three-masted schooners anchored nearby; the island lost its natural moat when it was filled with debris. Cable cars moved smartly up and down First Avenue, and buildings with Romanesque and Palladian features sprouted overnight, rivaling in height the five-century-old trees that had been in their paths.
Curtis himself was put to work on behalf of the city’s hagiography. He shot dreamy landscapes at the edge of the city, which filled a full page of a respected Seattle broadsheet, hailing “A New Garden of Eden.” A story in that annual progress edition told of a visiting Oxford don who asked about Seattle’s history. He was taken to see one of the pioneers who had been around when the city was started.
“Started!” the visitor said. “Do you realize how peculiar it is to an Englishman to hear of men who were present when a city was started?” Life in the new Northwest, the story concluded, was “wholly beyond the comprehension of the Europeans.”
What People are saying about this
"...Egan writes this fascinating biography with a compelling and occasionally creative narrative that challenges the age-old ratio of a picture's worth a thousand words. Egan somehow makes both more valuable." - USA Today Part of the Holiday Books Roundup. "...[Timothy Egan] gracefully transforms the past into vivid scenes that employ all five senses. The result is an honest portrayal of a man obsessed with capturing the final days of this nation's first people." - Star Tribune
"Egan calls Curtis' book a work of "lasting merit." The same can also easily be said for Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher." - Seattle Times
"...a sweeping tale about two vanishing ways of life. The traditional lives of Native Americans were in eclipse, of course, but there was also the world in which Curtis made his way, amid Gilded Age tycoons and Edwardian adventurers, in the company of hale fellows setting off on long trips by rail and boat, when simple mistakes of navigation had far-ranging consequences." - The Wall Street Journal
"Egan is particularly good at fleshing out lesser-known aspects of Curtis's life... This is a riveting biography of an American original." - The Boston Globe
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I was impressed with the dedication and perseverance of Mr Curtis. He gave much of his life to this North American Indian project at great personal cost. Although he died a poor man, he left us a rich history of an almost forgotten people. This was a very interesting book.
Fascinating book about a pioneering photographer and story teller that I had never heard of. I would highly recommend this book.
The story of a visionary who honored his public commitment to complete a staggering project. A powerfully told story of an artist, poised at the beginning of a new era telling an important story from the (rapidly receding) past era. A classic story of the difficulty of financially funding a vision and the potential costs of pursuing one's passion. Highly recommended book.
Well written and a fascinating story. I have enjoyed Curtis' photographs, and learning the story behind them made it more enjoyable. One comment to the Nook version - not all of the photos can be enlarged. It seems to be a bug in the software. It's a shame since I'd like to see the wonderful photos in a much detail as possible. Other than that, the nook version is fine.
The life of Edward Curtis who photographed and told the stories of The North American Indian. His collection of the languages, customs, and traditions was phenomenal. If he had not done the documenting of them, once the tribes were assimilated into the US culture, they would have been lost. This book was well researched. It took me a couple of chapters to get into the story of Edward Curtis but once I did I was fascinated by his story and life. He met so many famous people both Anglo and Native. He was persistent. It took longer than he thought but he was thorough and very much into his subject no matter where they were. Interesting piece of history of which I knew nothing.
Curtis was a great artist I had heard of and had seen some of his work but did not know the story behind the photos. This book shows the obsession of a life's work and the lows that plague many a great artist's masterpieces.
I bought a book of Curtis's photography years ago. This biography fleshes out and explains what he was doing and why he did it. He was a forward thinking person. I recommend this to everyone.
What toll does an obsession take on a man and his family? Egan answers that question in this well-researched biography of Edward S. Curtis