Book Offers Portrait of Prolific Photographer Who Captured Native American Lives

November 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Backed by Theodore Roosevelt, Edward Curtis set out in 1900 to document the lives of Native Americans. Over the next 30 years, he took more than 40,000 pictures and 10,000 audio recordings. Jeffrey Brown talks to Pulitzer Prize winner Timothy Egan about his new biography about Curtis, "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher."

HARI SREENIVASAN: Thanksgiving is a time to remember Native American life and culture. And that was the life’s work of Edward Curtis, a turn-of-the-century photographer.

His story is told in a new biography, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” by journalist and author Timothy Egan, a previous winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1896, Edward Curtis took this photograph of a woman known as Princess Angeline, the last surviving child of the Native American chief for whom the city of Seattle was named.

It was the first in what would become a decades-long project, one of the most ambitious in American book and documentary history of capturing a vanishing Native American life and some of its most important figures, including Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and the Apache warrior Geronimo.

Author Timothy Egan joins me now.

Welcome to you.

TIMOTHY EGAN, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher”: Thank you. Great to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: I think a lot of people will know some of the famous paragraphs, but not the scope of the project.


JEFFREY BROWN: Give us a sense of how big this was and what he was after.

TIMOTHY EGAN: Yes. I do think a lot of people know something about Curtis.

But it ended up being the largest traffic odyssey in American history, more than Mathew Brady, the Civil War photographer. He started out wanting to do Native American life that was still somewhat intact. He thought it might take him five years.

It took him more than 30. He took 40,000 photographs. And he took these on glass plate negatives, 14-by-17-inch plates that he carried around in his pack and on horseback.

He recorded more than 10,000 native songs. He ended up doing 2,200 pages of text telling life stories, mythologies, diets, habits, sex lives. It’s documentaries of lives and nations and people. And one man did it all.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he has this sense that it is of a vanishing history, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Where did that come from, though? Where did that passion for it come from?

TIMOTHY EGAN: Well, first of all, just the vanishing point was the census had just counted 235,000 Native people, from a high of perhaps 20 million at the time of European contact.

So they’re gone by more than 90 percent. And the conventional wisdom of all the scholars and Indian experts is that they will be gone within a lifetime. He starts out as this prominent photographer. He has a great life. Teddy Roosevelt hires him to shoot his daughter’s wedding. He could have been…

JEFFREY BROWN: He was a portrait photographer.

TIMOTHY EGAN: Right. He could have been Annie Leibovitz, which is what he was. He was a great portrait photographer.


TIMOTHY EGAN: And he sees Indians initially as a commodity, that they’re disappearing, he can make money off them.

But as time goes on and the project engulfs him, and it consumes him, it just becomes his whole passion, this magnificent obsession, he sees something more and he becomes outraged.

For example, it’s against the law for them to practice many of their religious rituals that he’s trying to photograph. He is sort of an accomplice to a crime. The Indian Crimes Code Act is passed, making many of these ceremonies illegal.

JEFFREY BROWN: You describe some of these extraordinary adventures he went through, because, of course, for good reason, the Native Americans didn’t want outsiders. They didn’t trust outsiders, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: So, it’s not as though he could often walk right in and just start taking photographs.

TIMOTHY EGAN: He never did that.


TIMOTHY EGAN: They threw dirt at his camera. They charged him with horses. They reported him to the Indian agents. He initially wasn’t accepted at all.

But he always had Native people on the payroll, and he would spend months and even years setting up a single portrait, winning the trust, winning the confidence, trying to understand context.

Why do you wear your hair this way? Why is that bead like that? Do you want to wear this coat vs. that coat?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. I’m thinking of some that you described with the Apaches, where he went for months and months. He tried to get to that point.

TIMOTHY EGAN: Tried to understand them internally.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is such a big project. It required a lot of money, required a lot of resources.


JEFFREY BROWN: He went to prominent folks. He went to President Roosevelt. He went to J.P. Morgan.

TIMOTHY EGAN: Roosevelt was his mentor, in the sense that Roosevelt, when he saw the scope of the project…


TIMOTHY EGAN: Remember, he’s setting aside land for national parks, but he’s not setting aside this vision for the people.

Roosevelt writes the introduction to it. But he has as many as 30 people working for him at one time, translators, technicians, advance folks, a lot of Native people on his staff. And it cost a ton of money. He’s bleeding funds. It’s killing him. His portrait business is not keeping up.

So, he does end up in J.P. Morgan’s Wall Street office, the richest banker in the United States, trying to convince him to fund the project.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pick one iconic one. Of course, there’s Chief Joseph.


JEFFREY BROWN: You describe him coming to Seattle, and there’s a football game, of all things, involved.

TIMOTHY EGAN: They bring one of the most famous Indians in America, in 1903, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, who’s known worldwide as the Indian Napoleon for the Nez Perce War…


TIMOTHY EGAN: … to Seattle to witness a University of Washington football game.

And they asked him later what he thought, and he said — he didn’t speak the language — this is through a translator — he says: “I saw a lot of white people almost fight each other today. I do not think that is good.”


TIMOTHY EGAN: But Joseph was a prisoner of war at the time. He could not leave the reservation, same with Geronimo, without President Roosevelt’s permission. This is 25 years after the war.

Curtis understood that what Joseph wanted was his homeland back. So, at the end of that weekend, where they’re sort of parading this Indian around at a football game, oh, look at the Indian at a football game, look at the clash of cultures, they take him up the street with a car.

Curtis shoots one of his most famous portraits, and it is one that does what Curtis wanted to do, which was to make these people live forever.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, speaking of what he wanted to do, because this is another really interesting dimension to all this, is that — is the sort of — I don’t know — it could be an accusation, that he’s more of a mythmaker than a documentarian, at least the way we think of…

TIMOTHY EGAN: Correct. And there’s a raging argument over that. There still is. You don’t…

JEFFREY BROWN: He was posing people in garb that they might not be wearing at the time.

TIMOTHY EGAN: Right. Right.

Well, I disagree with the latter part. He never said he didn’t pose people. He always said in interviews, if you read these New York Times glowing accounts of his, he’d come to Washington, The Washington Post would say, famous Indian photographer in town to meet with president and members of the Senate, et cetera.

He always said he had posed people. He always paid people for posing. He always asked them what they wanted to wear in their portrait.

I think the accusation about the posing came later on from people who didn’t understand what he was doing.

Yes, he was a documentarian. It’s no different than you or I going to Scotland and saying, do you have the kilt that your grandfather wore, and then asking the third-generation person to wear the kilt.

What he was doing in his time was breaking the stereotypes. Indians were one-dimensional. They were even either noble savages or dime store Indians. He saw them as distinct human beings, and that’s what Native people today see in his pictures.

JEFFREY BROWN: You talk about him coming to Washington or New York, a nationally famous figure…


JEFFREY BROWN: … and, yet, died penniless, relatively unknown, almost alone.

TIMOTHY EGAN: He had lost his copyright to the House of Morgan, because the deeper they got into him, the more he gave up.

So, when he finishes his masterpiece, the greatest photographic odyssey in American history, arguably the greatest photographic masterpiece, he’s lost it all. He doesn’t make a dime off of it. Today, those individual sets will go for up to $2 million in auction.

The other thing is, no one appreciates what he’s done. He gets a 77-word obituary in The New York Times that doesn’t mention his masterpiece.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is 1952.

TIMOTHY EGAN: 1952, at the age of 84, he’s living alone in a tiny apartment in Beverly Hills. He hates it.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s about 20 years later, in the ’70s, where, boom, begins again. People rediscover what he’s done.

TIMOTHY EGAN: It’s an amazing epilogue…


TIMOTHY EGAN: … because Morgan buys — owns everything. They sell it to a Boston bookseller for 1,000 bucks. It sits in the basement, these treasures, of this Boston store for almost 40 years.

They are rediscovered in the ’70s, and then they start to be distributed widely. And that’s why you see Curtis pictures everywhere now. Even The New York Times sells Curtis pictures right now.


JEFFREY BROWN: Is that right?

TIMOTHY EGAN: That’s right.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.”

Timothy Egan, thanks so much.

TIMOTHY EGAN: Thanks for having me, Jeff. Appreciate it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You can see more of Edward Curtis’ photographs online. We have linked to a collection at NorthwesternUniversity that includes the entire 20 volumes called “North American Indian.”