Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher

The Epic Life    and Immortal Photographs of EDWARD CURTIS

OctNov13 080

by Timothy Egan

The more I read, the more I was captivated by this incredible story of an uneducated young man who took it upon himself to record the last days as well as the rituals and lifestyle of the various tribes of Native Americans. He actually built his first camera from one box inside another using a lens his father had on the shelf! He went on to take amazing photos of the Navajo, Hopi, Apache, Sioux and other peoples.

Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle

Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle inspired Curtis to begin his project

Curtis’ photographs are well-known and you are likely to recognize a few, namely the one of Geronimo he took at the time of Theodore Roosevelt’s second inauguration. At a time when no one else thought to record this disappearing history, Curtis struck upon the idea when he saw an old native American woman digging clams in his native Seattle. It then  became his mission in life.



Working at the turn of the century with glass plate negatives, he took fine pictures, using the most difficult and time-consuming way to develop and print them. He finally published a limited edition of 100 sets, priced at $3000 for a  20 – volume set. He had to peddle these to universities and collectors, struggling to finance and complete his project despite the backing of J.P. Morgan.

Not having any formal education, it was hard for Curtis to find support in the academic community.It is interesting that the top ethnologists and scholars at the Smithsonian did not support him and told him that it was impossible to carry out his ambitious plans. Fortunately, he proved them wrong.

Upshaw-Apsaroke 1903 friend, translator, collaborator

Upshaw-Apsaroke 1903 friend, translator, collaborator

Read what he discovered about General Custer and was forced to delete from his book! Curtis interviewed the surviving Crow scouts that had guided Custer and they gave conclusive proof of how Custer’s vanity and desire to take all the glory led to his defeat  and the death of all his men.

A vanishing race

A vanishing race

Inspite of monetary problems and personal problems, Edward Curtis continue to travel into remote areas, visiting INdians in Alaska and British Columbia. One of his greatest losses was the death of his companion and translator, Alexander Upshaw, a Crow Indian educated at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School of  Pennsylvania.

Not only did Curtis photograph the people, but he recorded over 29 languages, numerous songs and chants and moving pictures of now forgotten ceremonies and dances. Posterity must be grateful  to this man who preserved a record in pictures and prose of a race that has virtually vanished from the earth.

A great read by the author of The Worst Hard Time.



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