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Friday, January 04, 2013

The Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan

The Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher:  The Epic Life and Eternal Photographs of Edward Curtis was an uncorrected e-book manuscript from Net Galley.  The e-book galley was full of random capitalization and occasionally a little lacking in narrative coherence, but a totally involving read!  What a fascinating life the obsessed Curtis lived in his attempt to document the story of the vanishing cultures of the American Indian, and what a record of photographs and text he left behind!  I may have to purchase the completed print version just to get the photographs that the Kindle version mangles.

Despite my complaints (and it was a free and uncorrected version), the book tells the haunting story of a man with a project that was, as he was repeatedly told, too large for fifty men, much less the one man and his few devoted friends and assistants, and I read it avidly.  What an adventure story, what a consuming passion, what a remarkable achievement!


In his early thirties, Curtis, who was a premier portrait photographer, found himself completely fixated by his idea of documenting as much as possible about the life, traditions, and spiritual beliefs of the Native Americans.  Even as these traditions were being eradicated at a rapid rate by missionaries and forced boarding schools that forbade even the use of the children's native languages, Curtis persevered, often finding that on return visits to a tribe, much of what he had recorded previously was no longer in existence as a result of laws forbidding the practice of many spiritual ceremonies.

Regardless of the support of Theodore Roosevelt and the patronage of J.P. Morgan, Curtis was always broke and his financial troubles followed him throughout the thirty years he pursued his dream. His devotion, however, was unparalleled, and in spite of the hardships, Curtis doggedly persevered.

A fascinating biography of the man behind the camera, an adventure story, an intimate glimpse of the despair resulting from  misguided (and greedy?)  government policies,  and images of a way of life that was disappearing even as it was recorded--this book will hold your interest in such a variety of ways.

If you have an interest in photography, history, Native Americans, or life in the early 1900's, I can strongly recommend this amazing book.

Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.

Nonfiction.  Biography/History.  2012.  384 pages.

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