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.
The gain for all that pain, however, was truly remarkable. Using his camera, he painted a vivid and romantic portrait of the former masters of a continent as no mere ethnographer, academic, or Hollywood director ever could. Each photograph is a mini-volume unto itself: artful, arresting, and the embodiment of a larger story. Academics argued, then and now, that Curtis wasn’t interested in documenting the reality of Indian life in the 20th century. He used props, seldom worn regalia, and staged atavistic scenes for dramatic effect. All true and beside the point.
Curtis was an artist, not simply a photographer or ethnologist. He would show the world what remained of a people and their culture rather than what had been lost. He wanted Americans to admire his subjects as he did. The viewer, like the reader of a compelling novel, is expected to know that artistic creation is at play in search of a larger truth.