Tuesday, October 9, 2012

"Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher" by Timothy Egan (2012)

One of the most overlooked of the early 20th century photographers is Edward Curtis. His images of the dying days of the old Wild West; and the changing western landscape; will live on forever, in witness to the era in which they were taken. While many have seen his photographs, few really know much about the contribution he made in recording the history of the Native American.
Taking over 40,000 photographs, and making 10,000 audio recordings over a period of 10 years, Edward Curtis has often been described as the Indiana Jones of American photography. He embarked on this quest to document the story of the last of the great American Indian Tribes. With financial help from J.P. Morgan, as well as President Theodore Roosevelt, he was able to accomplish his goal. He is even credited with producing the very first film documentary.
Along with his assistant, William Meyers; an excellent linguist; he was also able to transcribe several dictionaries of Native American languages, including Hopi. He even lived with the tribe for a period and aspired to become a Hopi medicine man. While recording the history of the Apache; who were thought to have no religion; he discovered their ritual “snake dance”, even taking part in this sacred rite.
Edward Curtis’ work has gone a long way in the understanding of American Native Culture, yet his name is less known than Dorothea Dix, and many of the later photographers who traveled the country, documenting parts of its vanishing history.
His interest in photography was sparked by an old camera lens which his father had bought home from the Civil War. The young Edward Curtis built a box around it ,and with the help of a book about photography, began to take pictures. After a brief; and unsuccessful; career as a farmer and store owner, he took a loan out against his property and outfitted himself to take photographs.
His first subject was the last surviving daughter of Chief Seattle in the Northwest, a woman known as Princess Angelina. She was a gnarled and weathered old woman living on the outskirts of Seattle, and not allowed into the new city where her native village once stood. She made her living foraging for berries and digging clams and mussels along the shore, where she lived in a shack. Mr. Curtis decided to photograph her in his studio, paying her $1 for the privilege. He also is known to have helped her out with money and food before her death on May 31, 1896.
The author has written a book which is both pleasant to read, while being educational in the process. His depiction of a once proud people; chased from one end of the continent to the other; by a nation hell bent on manifest destiny, will leave you with a sense of sorrow for  a people who were never fully understood. And the story of his quest to preserve everything he could in relation to their culture, speaks to the genius of a far sighted individual.

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