Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012 - Biography & Autobiography - 370 pages
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How a lone man’s epic obsession led to one of America’s greatest cultural treasures: Prizewinning writer Timothy Egan tells the riveting, cinematic story behind the most famous photographs in Native American history — and the driven, brilliant man who made them.
Edward Curtis was charismatic, handsome, a passionate mountaineer, and a famous photographer, the Annie Leibovitz of his time. He moved in rarefied circles, a friend to presidents, vaudeville stars, leading thinkers. And he was thirty-two years old in 1900 when he gave it all up to pursue his Great Idea: to capture on film the continent’s original inhabitants before the old ways disappeared.

An Indiana Jones with a camera, Curtis spent the next three decades traveling from the Havasupai at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the Acoma on a high mesa in New Mexico to the Salish in the rugged Northwest rain forest, documenting the stories and rituals of more than eighty tribes. It took tremendous perseverance — ten years alone to persuade the Hopi to allow him into their Snake Dance ceremony. And the undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate. Eventually Curtis took more than 40,000 photographs, preserved 10,000 audio recordings, and is credited with making the first narrative documentary film. In the process, the charming rogue with the grade school education created the most definitive archive of the American Indian.

His most powerful backer was Theodore Roosevelt, and his patron was J. P. Morgan. Despite the friends in high places, he was always broke and often disparaged as an upstart in pursuit of an impossible dream. He completed his masterwork in 1930, when he published the last of the twenty volumes. A nation in the grips of the Depression ignored it. But today rare Curtis photogravures bring high prices at auction, and he is hailed as a visionary. In the end he fulfilled his promise: He made the Indians live forever.

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User Review  - larryerick - LibraryThing

There are few things more guaranteed to be enjoyed than a Timothy Egan non-fiction book. I have read all but one of his, and they all flow easily, educate substantially, and capture their subjects ... Read full review

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User Review  - janw - LibraryThing

Back in the late 70's I first saws an exhibition of Curtis work and was really struck by the photos. Later someone told me Curtis was not well regarded among photographers and scholars because he ... Read full review


1 First Picture
2 Encounter on a Volcano
3 The Big Idea
4 Indian Napoleon
5 With the President
6 In the Den of the Titan
7 Anglos in Indian Country
8 The Artist and His Audience
13 Moving Pictures
14 Lost Days
15 Second Wind
16 The Longest Days
17 Fight to the Finish
18 Twilight
Back Matter

9 The Custer Conundrum
10 The Most Remarkable Man
11 On the River of the West
12 New Art Forms
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About the author (2012)

TIMOTHY EGAN is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, a New York Times columnist, winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for excellence in nonfiction, and the author of seven books, most recently Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher. His previous books include The Worst Hard Time, which won a National Book Award, and the national bestseller The Big Burn. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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