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.
In Egan’s vivid portrayal, the dashingly handsome, charismatic, and vauntingly ambitious Curtis had a magnificent obsession — to record the traditions of Native Americans, from the Makah whalers of the Northwest to the Apaches of Arizona Territory before they were lost. With a sixth-grade education, outsize boldness, and native intelligence, Curtis embarked on “the largest, most comprehensive and ambitious photographic odyssey in American history.”
In 1896 he made his first photograph of a Native American, seeing in the weathered countenance and fatalistic expression of Chief Seattle’s daughter “a moment from a time before any white man had looked upon these shores.” Two years later, on Mount Rainier, Curtis rescued a group including George Bird Grinnell, a Plains Indians expert, and Clint Merriam, US Biological Survey chief. This fortuitous encounter determined Curtis’s path: Merriam invited him on an Alaskan expedition in 1899, and the following year, Grinnell asked him to photograph the Blackfeet in Montana.
Curtis’s “impossibly grandiose idea’’ began to take shape. He vowed to publish 20 volumes documenting the 80 remaining North American tribes in 1,500 photographs with accompanying ethnographic text — within five years. Curtis worked frenetic “sixteen-hour days, seven days a week,” neglecting his wife and family, incurring major debt. He had to make time to sell his “Big Idea” to potential backers. Teddy Roosevelt contributed a foreword for the project, but no money. Curtis courted the Smithsonian, and in a typical rhetorical flourish, Egan writes: “And just what made a dropout from a one-room schoolhouse think he could get the nation’s top ethnologists to back his project? Balls. Those who didn’t try for the highest peak were doomed to the foothills.”
In 1906, as his grand plan was running out of money, Curtis struck a deal with J. Pierpont Morgan, “a crow-eyed collector of art, railroads, and women,’’ who agreed to fund the fieldwork, but not the photographer. Eventually, Curtis’s long-suffering wife, Clara, sued for divorce and was awarded his studio. He lost some of his vigor, but never the will to finish the project, which took him 30 years.
Egan is particularly good at fleshing out lesser-known aspects of Curtis’s life: his dogged efforts to uncover the real story of the Little Bighorn, his re-creation of Pacific Indian life in his 1914 film “In the Land of the Head-Hunters,’’ his Hollywood hackwork for Cecil B. DeMille, his trips to the Sierra Nevada goldfields, and his late correspondence with a Seattle librarian about his glory days.
This is a riveting biography of an American original.
Kathryn Lang, a former senior editor at Southern Methodist University Press, can be reached at kathrynallenlang