5 Cool Things for 10.28.2012

Timothy Egan’s newest book

The last Indian of Seattle lived in a shack down among the greased piers and coal bunkers of the new city, on what was then called West Street, her hovel in the grip of Puget Sound, off plumb in a rise above the tidal flats.” So begins Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, the latest book by the great (Seattleite) Timothy Egan. Short Nights explores the amazing story of Edward Curtis, self-made swashbuckling photographer, ethnographer, writer, adventurer, lecturer and, passionate lover of native tribes. He dedicated 30 years of his life to The North American Indian – documenting a vanishing (or so he believed) indigenous culture, a mind-bending effort that cost him nearly everything. Utterly fascinating tale of luck and perseverance that ricochets from town to tipi, from poverty to plutocracy and back again. “This we know. All things are connected,” said Chief Seattle, and who are we to disagree?


1. Edward Curtis | A Bit of Personal History

In my (not so very) halcyon days, I worked in Special Collections (the rare book room) at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Among its many treasures, was a wondrous collection of Edward Curtis folios from his mammoth project, The North American Indian. With hushed reverence, I flipped through one stunning photogravure after another — a white-gloves-only undertaking. As a photography major, this was a heart stopping thrill, almost like I’d discovered the work myself. A bit later, two of us — myself and this beautiful woman — made a small exhibition, The Photographer as Mythmaker.

A complete set of The North American Indian

We entertained ourselves silly over the tribal name Kwakiutl (based in the Queen Charlotte Islands), and marveled at their incredible totems and architecture. And, we explored Curtis’ work and some of the challenges it posed. Curtis, some argued, had delivered a beautiful, but romanticized view of native culture — the noble savage idea. Curtis held complex views. He was in awe at the same time that he saw his subjects as a source of income and, as fading-from-view historical artifacts, in urgent need of documentation. This was my first encounter with Edward Curtis and he made a powerful, lasting impression on me — such passionate dedication wedded to sheer creative brilliance. But his art, intended to be an objective record, was as much a product of his own imagination and cultural beliefs — as it was a clear-eyed record of what was in front of him. Once upon a time, in the Washington town of Suquamish, I lived on Angeline Street, named for Chief Seattle’s daughter. This is Princess Angeline, below.

Princess Angeline – Curtis’ first native portrait. He paid her $1.00 for the sitting.


2. Edward Curtis | J.P. Morgan, Victim Philanthropist

Curtis, via his connection to Teddy Roosevelt, finagled an audience with J.P. Morgan to seek financial assistance for his project. Fearing that he was not closing the deal — “I will be unable to help you,” Morgan told him — Curtis appealed to Morgan’s sense of victimhood. From Egan’s book —

“….more cynically, benevolence could do wonders for Morgan’s image. Roosevelt had made the wealthy out to be heartless bastards, the lot of them, and the progressive mob wanted them taxed at an annual rate of 50% or more. These people, many of them Republicans with personal fortunes of their own, were calling for the creation of an income tax, of all things — the audacity. If Morgan agreed to sponsor something historic on behalf of a downtrodden class, it would do quite a bit for his reputation.” The pitch, along with a photograph of a young Indian girl, worked.

– from Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher


 3. Edward Curtis, Writer | Singing Songs of Love and Life

Curtis was clearly more than a photographer. The North American Indian is not just a photographic project. It’s 20 volumes of ethnographically based observations on various tribes, native social structures, clothing, languages, customs, songs, rituals and so forth. Judge for yourself  Curtis’ ability to set his thoughts and observations down on paper.

The task has not been an easy one, for although lightened at time by the readiness of the Indians to impart their knowledge, it more often required days and weeks of patient endeavor before my assistants and I succeeded in overcoming the deep-rooted superstition, conservatism, and secretiveness so characteristic of primitive people, who are ever loathe to afford a glimpse of their inner life to those who are not of their own. Once the confidence of the Indians gained, the way led gradually through the difficulties, but long and serious study was necessary before knowledge of the esoteric rites and ceremonies could be gleaned.

The word-story of this primitive life, like the pictures, must be drawn direct from Nature. Nature tells the story, and in Nature’s simple words I can but place it before the reader. In great measure it must be written as these lines are — while I am in close touch with the Indian life.

At the moment I am seated by a beautiful brook that bounds through the forests of Apacheland. Numberless birds are singing their songs of love and life. Within my reach lies a tree, felled only last night by a beaver, which even now darts out into the light, scans his surroundings, and scampers back. A covey of mourning doves fly to the water’s edge, slake their thirst in their dainty way, and flutter off. A youth and a maiden hand in hand wend their way along the cool stream’s brink. The words of the children and lovers are unknown to me, but the story of childhood and love needs no interpreter.

Ed. note: Finely observed but notice the use of the word “primitive” and the gauzy, nostalgic perspective on things.


4. Edward Curtis | The Photographs

Hopi Maiden


On the housetop (Hopi)

Nimkish Village at Alert Bay (Kwakiutl)

The Vanishing Race

Incredible Curtis resource at Northwestern University >>


5. Edward Curtis | Selling The North American Indian 

What’s so interesting here is that you can get a ten minute sweep of the epic quality of the Curtis project, but even more telling, is the view into how an auction house lays the groundwork for selling such high-priced work. The North American Indian — just this one set, No. 113, seen in this video — sold just recently for $1.44 million. Watch how carefully the video is made, listen to the language used. Such a smooth sell. Too bad Curtis isn’t around to see that his once $5,000.00 sets now go for a cool million plus.


6. Bonus Photo | Monument Valley Girl

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #43 | From the MOMA show: Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West.

How brilliant is this?