Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan
A concise exploration of unwavering dedication and the toll of outsized ambition, Timothy Egan’s biography offers us a chance to (re)evaluate the life and work of Edward Curtis from a range of viewpoints. Not simply an artist, Curtis’s motivations for undertaking The North American Indian—one of the grandest individual cultural history projects—were complex and mutable. What began as an attempt to document and preserve rapidly disappearing lives eventually turned into a kind of activism, as Curtis revised false histories and advocated for the rights of Native Americans to live freely and practice traditional ways of life. But The North American Indian wasn’t an exclusively artistic/scientific venture. Throughout his thirty year project, Curtis also cultivated his public persona in hopes that his stature as a great artist/anthropologist/historian/adventurer would be preserved. This wasn’t to be the case, however—at least not in Curtis’s lifetime.
As to the work itself? Egan does decent job of deconstructing the inevitable implications inherent in such a vast and multi-layered project, though he could have looked more critically at some of Curtis’s heavy handed assumptions and approaches. That said, while staged and at times manipulated and rife with nostalgia, Curtis’s work, particularly his photography, provides a unique and compendious archive—one that continues to connect us to the rich cultures, histories, art, and languages of the First Peoples. Curtis’s work is unique, being a special kind of hybrid of art and anthropology, and his photography is magnificent. His exacting techniques and distinct style make for images that are instantly recognizable, and his use of light is not only powerful but still largely unrivaled. Not bad for a guy with 6th grade education from the then remote Pacific Northwest, as Egan often reminds us.
Hyperbole plagues Egan’s prose in places—things tend to be the biggest, the tallest, the very first, etc.—but I think this is probably due to the infectiousness of Curtis’s convictions and enthusiasm for life and work, so it’s hard to fault him for falling prey to this. In fact, it’s Egan’s ardor for his subject that makes Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher a captivating read.