Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Revisiting Immortal Photos Edward Curtis Documented Culture of Native Americans

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Revisiting Immortal Photos Edward Curtis Documented Culture of Native Americans

Article excerpt


By Timothy Egan.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (available in hardcover, paperback and Kindle).

Tall, handsome and quick-witted, Edward Curtis knew front-page fame as a celebrity photographer during America's Gilded Age. But at heart, he was Indiana Jones with a camera.

Curtis spent 30 years producing "The North American Indian," a 20- volume set with 2,200 haunting photographs that documented more than 80 tribes, including such well-known leaders as Geronimo, Red Cloud and Chief Joseph. At home in the outdoors from the days of his Minnesota boyhood, he logged tens of thousands of miles, risking his life in a small boat on the undammed Columbia River or paddling a kayak past a calving glacier in Alaska.

J.P. Morgan financed the wildly ambitious project with $2.5 million, and President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged Curtis, who created vivid portraits of Native Americans while documenting their customs, dances and languages through interviews and audio recordings. The New York Times praised "The North American Indian" as "the greatest achievement in bookmaking since the King James Bible."

Still, when Curtis died at age 84 in 1952, the anthropologist and ethnographer was broke, lonely and forgotten. The New York Times devoted a mere 77 words to his passing.

Author Timothy Egan, who covered the West for The New York Times and lives in Seattle, recounts Curtis' cultural quest in "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher." The book won this year's Chautauqua Prize. Mr. Egan's earlier work, "The Worst Hard Time," garnered the National Book Award.

The son of an itinerant preacher, Curtis left school before age 12. A chance encounter on one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes changed his life in 1898. On a summer evening, while photographing a glacier on Mount Rainier, he guided six lost climbers away from a treacherous ice field and up to safety in his refuge at Camp Muir.

Among the middle-aged climbers Curtis rescued was George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Aubudon Society, editor of Field and Stream magazine and an expert on America's Plains Indians. Another grateful climber was Clint Hart Merriam, a co-founder of the National Geographic Society.

Days later, the men visited Curtis' photography gallery and studio in Seattle. In 1899, Merriam invited the photographer aboard a large ship to explore Alaska; the expedition included Gifford Pinchot, later a top aide to President Theodore Roosevelt and a two- time governor of Pennsylvania. That trip was the beginning of a lifelong journey to record what Curtis believed was a vanishing race.

"The American government's philosophy was to erase their religion, language, culture ... and to put them in schools and wash the Indian out of them," Mr. Egan said during an interview at Chautauqua Institution this past summer. …

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