Curtis saw himself in a mad race to photograph the First Americans before the American Century crushed their spirit and steamrolled their traditional ways. In the argot of the era, as well as in the caption of one of Curtis’ most famous photographs, Indians were a “Vanishing Race,” drowning in the melting pot. Indeed, such was the intent of the federal government, which criminalized Native religious ceremonies and sought to separate Indians from their culture and communal lands. Often, both Curtis and his photographic subjects were breaking the law.
Timothy Egan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and New York Times writer, seems to have gone to school on his subject to write Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. The ungainly title of his seventh book notwithstanding, the author artfully frames a stunning portrait of Edward Curtis that captures every patina of his glory, brilliance, and pathos.
Curtis’ greatest legacy is his 20-volume opus titled "The North American Indian," which depicts dozens of Indian tribes from Oklahoma to the Pacific coast, from the Great Plains to remote Alaskan islands where bureaucrats and missionaries dared not tread. This Herculean task consumed Curtis for more than three decades. It also divided his family, destroyed his marriage, dissolved friendships, degraded his health, and left him without ownership of his own photographs.