Thursday, October 18, 2012

Edward Curtis: The Shadow Catcher

Expected to sell for more than one million dollars, summer of 2012

Timothy Egan's new book, which I've been looking forward to since he was on campus a couple of weeks ago, arrived on Saturday. Egan is a journalist who writes primarily about the American West and especially the Northwest, where he lives. His book about the dust bowl, The Worst Hard Time, won the National Book Award, and Lasso the Wind is a set of lively travel essays. 

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis tells the story (and Egan is a wonderful storyteller) of one of America's best photographers, a man frantic to document the American Indians, their ways of living, their languages, and their songs before the last of them had assimilated. Thus the "short nights." Funded by J. P. Morgan, the field work went on for several decades, resulting finally in the 20-volume The Indians of North America. As the funding continued, Morgan gradually took control of the copyrite and rights to all the plates and photos, leaving Curtis a poor man.

When I was a student at Princeton, Alf Bush, curator of the Western Americana section of the Firestone Library, showed me a set of Curtis plates, dusky prints that felt like windows through which I had unexpected access to remarkable people and ways of life. It was a deeply moving, even sacred experience.

Canyon de Chelly
And the experience of other peoples and people was augmented by beauty. Curtis was a fine, if untrained anthropologist. And he was an artist of rare ability, "catching" extradinary light and surprising forms.

Addendum: The New York Times has this series of photos by the Rev. Don Doll, more recent images of Native Americans:

1 comment:

* said...

plates are great. you are right, they are like windows to somewhere else. haven't thought about that but yes that's exactly how it is. reminds me of some photogrammatic projects i want to do since ages, use up all my glassplates and tone them brown like that lower beautiful image. plate really is special. i always feel i ought to keep mine for special occasion, but then again life is a special occasion, so... - you were lucky being able to see such a hole bunch of them.