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Posted: July 7, 2014

A review of "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis."

If you like books that explore natural history, indigenous cultures, and American history, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis (by Timothy Egan. Houghton Mifflin Harcort. Boston, New York. 2012) is one to consider. Edward Curtis was a photographer of Native Americans living in the late 19th and early 20th century, and Timothy Egan is an award winning writer who has a gift for telling the whole, straight story.

On the surface, this book is a biography of Curtis, who despite many obstacles – lack of formal education, poor health as a child, few resources, and many critics – set an almost impossible goal for himself. He called it his “great idea.” In 1900, at age thirty-two, he determined he would capture the rapidly disappearing cultures of western Native Americans on film, and in the process he would record as much about their cultures and languages as possible before they were lost. Much deeper, this book explores the complex relationships that Curtis forged during the process. He gained friends in high places, such as Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Gifford Pinchot, as well as a demanding patron, J.P. Morgan, who backed his work. Yet it is his relationships with countless Native Americans who told Curtis their personal stories and the story of their tribes that enrich this book.

Curtis’ goal demanded nearly forty years to achieve (thirty-five years longer than he anticipated), and the cost included his family, his home, his wealth, a successful business, and his personal reputation. Yet, the “great idea” resulted in over 40,000 photographs, 10,000 audio recordings, the world’s first narrative documentary film, and twenty volumes of text and photos on the tribes that had survived up to the end of this era. Though Curtis died in abject poverty and forgotten (much like his subjects), and many of his photos were lost, today his remaining work is regarded as the most definitive photo archive of Native Americans. He is seen now as a visionary, an ethnographer, and an artist. This book is inspiring, educational, and worth reading; readers will also come away with a clearer understanding of the impacts of western civilization upon the last, first people of this land.

Reviewed by Dr. Sanford “Sandy” Smith, Youth and Natural Resources Extension Specialist, Penn State Department of Ecosystem Science and Management