Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher
“This is a riveting biography of an American original.”
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. In the end he fulfilled his promise: He made the Indians live forever.
What People are Saying
“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
“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. Edward Curtis undertook one of the most epic cultural projects in American history–photographing and documenting the vanishing ways of life of some 80 American Indian tribes. It cost him almost everything he once was. And still he persisted, turning out some of the greatest photographic and ethnological work ever done. 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
“New York Times Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Egan (The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, 2009, etc.) returns with the story of the astonishing life of Edward Curtis (1868–1952), whose photographs of American Indians now command impressive prices at auction.
This is an era of excessive subtitles—but not this one: “Epic” and “immortal” are words most fitting for Curtis, whose 20-volume The North American Indian, a project that consumed most of his productive adult life, is a work of astonishing beauty and almost incomprehensible devotion. Egan begins with the story of Angelina, Chief Seattle’s daughter, who in 1896 was living in abject poverty in the city named for her father. Curtis—who’d begun a Seattle photography shop—photographed her, became intrigued with the vanishing lives of America’s
Indians and devoted the ensuing decades both to the photography of indigenous people all over North America and to the writing of texts that described their culture, languages, songs and religion. Curtis scrambled all his life for funding—J.P. Morgan and President Theodore Roosevelt were both supporters, though the former eventually took over the copyrights and sold everything to a collector during the Depression for $1,000—and spent most of his time away from home, a decision that cost him his marriage. His children, however, remained loyal, some later helping him with his project. As Egan shows, Curtis traveled nearly everywhere, living with the people he was studying, taking thousands of photographs. He nearly died on several occasions. Egan is careful to credit Curtis’ team, several of whom endured all that he did, though, gradually, he became the last man standing, and he reproduces a number of the gorgeous photographs.
Lucent prose illuminates a man obscured for years in history’s shadows.”
"Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times journalist Egan (The Worst Hard Time) turns his attention to one of Seattle’s most remarkable—yet all but forgotten—residents. In the late 19th century, Edward Curtis was the era’s reigning portrait photographer, so well respected that President Theodore Roosevelt chose him to photograph his daughter’s wedding. Yet in 1900, at the height of his fame, Curtis gave it up to pursue what would become his life’s work—“a plan to photograph all the intact Native American tribes left in North America” before their ways of life disappeared. This idea received the backing of J.P. Morgan and culminated in a critically acclaimed 20-volume set, The North American Indian, which took Curtis 30 years to complete and left him divorced and destitute. Unfailingly sympathetic to his subject, Egan shadows Curtis as he travels from Roosevelt’s summer home at Sagamore Hill to the mesas and canyons of the Southwest tribes and to the rain forests of the Coastal Indians and the isolated tundra on Nunivak Island. Egan portrays the dwindling tribes, their sacred rites (such as the Hopi snake dance), customs, and daily lives, and captures a larger-than-life cast. With a reporter’s eye for detail, Egan delivers a gracefully written biography and adventure story.”
-Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review