"Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher"

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Cosima___J
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"Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher"

Post by Cosima___J » Mon Nov 18, 2013 9:24 am

A great biography of Edward S Curtis, who devoted a lifetime to photographing the American Indians, written by Timothy Egan.

The story is both inspiring and yet touched with a melancholy sense of loss. Inspiring is the story of how the son of a dirt poor preacher and veteran of the Civil War became the highly sought after photographer of high society in Seattle. He walked away from this promising life to fulfill his life's ambition. And here's where the melancholy part comes in. Curtis recognized that the American Indian was being overwhelmed by the unstoppable tide of white men taking over the lands once owned by native Americans. He decided that he must record their vanishing way of life before it completely disappeared.

He planned to fill a 20 volume set of books with photos and stories concerning as many tribes as he could possibly visit. And the paper, bindings and photos must be of the highest quality. For this undertaking, he needed financial backing.

But the Smithsonian and various universities were not interested in giving aid to this man with only a sixth grade education. And furthermore, the so-called "experts" on the subject of Indians hotly disagreed with many of Curtis' findings. For instance, Indians had no religion they claimed. Curtis knew better. He'd personally witnessed and photographed their prayer chants and dances.

Curtis often put himself in great danger in order to photograph the Indian way of life rarely experienced by white man. The Hopi Snake Dance intrigued the photographer and after many visits, he was allowed to actually participate in this ritual rain dance. But first, he had to go with the Indian priests to catch the diamondback rattlesnakes. Then he had to wrap the first snake captured around his neck. "The Indians picked up a big rattler and extended it to him. The snake hissed and bared its fangs, the scaly skin touching the sun-bronzed neck of Curtis. After a few long minutes, the snake uncoiled and was removed from his neck."

Curtis had one last goal in order to complete his monumental life-long project of photographing the Indians of North America. He set out for Alaska. But it was late in the season. The first blast of winter caught him out in a boat trying desperately to make his way back to Nome. "In the teeth of the blizzard, they made anchorage just offshore, The storm raged for a full day, the boat iced up, taking on such a hard coating that it looked as if it were sealed in lacquer. If they did not move, the boat would freeze in place for the next eight months. Out again in open waters, the party ran into a second full day of heavy snow - and a third, and a fourth. ----- The hull began to leak, filling with saltwater from below and slushy snowmelt from above. They were alone, a speck of floating humanity in a cauldron of white." Eventually, they did make it back to Nome.

An excerpt from the dust jacket:

"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.'

Cosima___J
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Joined: Wed Jul 07, 2010 1:38 pm
Location: Georgia

Re: "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher"

Post by Cosima___J » Mon Nov 18, 2013 9:29 am

I will post more from this terrific book if I think there might be even one person interested in hearing more.

jbuck919
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Re: "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher"

Post by jbuck919 » Mon Nov 18, 2013 8:18 pm

Go for it. I just submitted my library reserve on it. (It's a good thing I'm a trustee and exempt from fines, because I just realized that the bio of John Quincy Adams I finished reading weeks ago is way overdue. Better get that back so others can enjoy it.)

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

Cosima___J
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Joined: Wed Jul 07, 2010 1:38 pm
Location: Georgia

Re: "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher"

Post by Cosima___J » Tue Nov 19, 2013 7:54 pm

John, I think you will really enjoy the book!

Curtis particularly detested Christian missionaries. These "good souls" were constantly trying to put an end to the "pagan" and "barbaric" rituals that native Americans had practiced for centuries. For instance, the Hopi Snake Dance (the one that Curtis helped catch rattlesnakes for) was but one target of the missionaries. They also worked tirelessly to send Indian children to Christian schools, hoping to erase the "Indian-ness" from young Native American minds.

On the Alaska trip, Curtis and his daughter Beth spent some time on Nunivak Island. The photographer was delighted that "at last, and for the first time in all my thirty years work with the natives, I have found a place where no missionary has worked." He was in his element floating in a kayak capturing the activities of the Eskimos. "Should any misguided missionary start for this island, I trust the sea will do its duty" he wrote.

Curtis devoted several pages to defending the Peyote Society, which missionaries called "devil worship" and "drug-eating debauchery". But Curtis knew a Cheyenne Indian who'd been sent as a child to the Christian Carlisle School and ended up a drunk who deserted his family and quit his job. But as Curtis noted, "within a few years of joining the peyote organization, he has become one of the most substantial men of the tribe."

It seems to me that Curtis' ability to empathize and to get close to the Native Americans and understand their customs is what enabled him to achieve such amazing photographs.

Cosima___J
Posts: 1486
Joined: Wed Jul 07, 2010 1:38 pm
Location: Georgia

Re: "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher"

Post by Cosima___J » Wed Dec 18, 2013 11:21 am

I just read in the Key Reporter that Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher won the Phi Beta Kappa "Ralph Waldo Emerson" award. Here's the quote that accompanied the announcement of the award:

"In Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, Timothy Egan tells the riveting, cinematic story behind the most famous photographs in Native American history - and the driven, brilliant man who made them."

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