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The Boston Globe


Book Review

‘Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher’ by Timothy Egan

Timothy Egan brings liveliness and a wealth of detail to his biography of the legendary American photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis. Winner of a National Book Award for “The Worst Hard Time,’’ his book about the Depression-era Dust Bowl, Egan here offers a carefully researched portrait of the man the Indians called the “Shadow Catcher.” Evenhanded and free of conjecture, Egan’s narrative traces the career of the 6-foot-2 mountaineer with the Vandyke beard who was born in 1868 and scrabbled from poverty to prominence in Seattle with his camera, along the way rubbing elbows with scientists, presidents, and titans of commerce, before fading into near oblivion before his death in 1952.

Egan takes a neutral stance toward Curtis’s sometime manipulations of his subjects’ costumes and rituals. But it’s clear his sympathies lie with the audacious creator of the arresting images of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, the aging Apache Geronimo, Navajo horsemen diminutive against the towering cliffs of the Canyon de Chelly, Hopi maidens with their hair in squash blossom swirls, and some 40,000 more that are his legacy.

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