Photographer Edward Curtis started off his career at the tail end of the 19th century, making portraits of Seattle's wealthiest citizens. But a preoccupation with Native Americans and a chance encounter on a mountaintop triggered an idea: Curtis decided to chronicle the experience of the vanishing tribes — all of them. It was an unbelievably ambitious project that would define Curtis, his work and his legacy.
Writer Tim Egan has just completed a new biography of Curtis. It's called Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: the Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. He tells NPR's Rachel Martin that Curtis discovered his first subject almost by accident. "He stumbles upon this, I call her 'the last Indian of Seattle'; it was Princess Angeline; she was the daughter of Chief Seattle, after whom the city was named."
Angeline was living in poverty and outside the law — Seattle, named for a Native American chief, had banned Native Americans from living inside its boundaries. "So Curtis finds this bedraggled, old, broken subject, and he's fascinated by her. ... He has her come back to the studio, he sits her down and he takes this extraordinary picture of her," Egan says. "The gaze, in the look of her face, you see something that just goes so far beyond a standard portrait picture."
Princess Angeline's portrait was the beginning of what Egan calls a "magnificent obsession" for Curtis: documenting the lives and traditions of Native Americans before they disappeared.. But he needed money for his project. Luckily for him, President Theodore Roosevelt got Curtis an interview with one of the richest men in America, J.P. Morgan, who initially turned him down. "Well, Curtis stays, and he opens up his portfolio, and he shows Morgan one more picture, a Mojave native, a young girl, probably about 12 years old, and Morgan is entranced by the picture," Egan says.
Conventional wisdom of the time held that Native Americans were vanishing; within a generation they would be gone. So with funding from Morgan, Curtis was able to keep taking pictures. And those pictures were an impressive technical feat — Curtis was traveling through Hopi and Navajo land, crossing the wilds of the American Southwest, all while carrying unwieldy and fragile glass plate negatives.
The delicate glass plates were not Curtis's only challenge — to make the images, he had to win the trust of suspicious Native American tribes. Egan says that at first, they were not inclined to let the photographer into their lives. "They threw dirt at his camera, they charged him on their horses, they tried to lure him with native women so they could then get him involved with sexual scandals," Egan says. "And initially his approach was a very blunt one. He would pay them."
But Curtis eventually won the trust of the tribes, partly because he did put Native people on his payroll. "By the middle of this epic, they loved him," Egan says. "He became an insider."
Curtis started out as a dispassionate outsider, Egan says, "knowing that he had a commodity in these Indians ... but slowly, one tribe after the other, he changes. Now, he never went full native, or as they called it, 'gone to the blanket,' but as he became broken and old, and had things taken away from him, he truly saw the Native world from their perspective."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Photographer Edward Curtis started off his career around the turn of the last century, taking portraits of Seattle's wealthiest citizens. And Curtis was turning heads in more ways than one.
TIM EGAN: He was a very good-looking guy - six-foot two-inches tall. He looked kind of like a young Brad Pitt. He had a Van Dyke beard and these piercing eyes that both men and women were attracted to. And he became very quickly the premiere portrait photographer in the United States.
MARTIN: That's writer Tim Egan. He's written a new biography of Curtis called "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis." Egan says it wasn't Curtis's good looks or his portraits of prominent Americans that made him epic - it was his ambition. Edward Curtis set up to document the experience of the vanishing American Indian. He thought it would take him five years; it became his life's work, and it all started on the outskirts of Seattle.
EGAN: Almost accidentally he stumbles upon this - I call it - the last Indian of Seattle. It was Princess Angeline and she was the daughter of Chief Seattle, after whom the city was named. She's roaming around at the entrance of this booming city, the fastest-growing city in the United States, and she's living illegally. The biggest city in the world named for a Native American has banned Native Americans from within their city bounds. So, Curtis finds this bedraggled, old broken subject and he's fascinated by her.
MARTIN: He takes her picture.
EGAN: He takes her picture, and he pays her a dollar. He has her come back to his studio, he sits her down and he takes this extraordinary picture of her. The gauge in the look of her face, you see something that just goes so far beyond a standard portrait picture. And that's the start of what would become his magnificent obsession.
MARTIN: He needed money for this project. He...
MARTIN: ...ultimately wins the support of the president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, who helps him get an in with one of the country's richest men at the time, J.P. Morgan.
EGAN: Right. Curtis had started off on this odyssey and it was costing him way more than he could possibly afford. So, he arranges to see the richest banker in the United States, J.P. Morgan, and Morgan initially turns him down. Well, Curtis stays and he opens up his portfolio and he shows Morgan one more picture of a Mojave native - a young girl probably about 12 years old. And Morgan is entranced by the picture. The picture wins him over. So, he agrees to fund the great expedition that Curtis has decided to do to take the Native life and document it and catch it before it all disappears.
MARTIN: And he doesn't do this the easy way, right? Explain Edward Curtis' technique. They carried these big heavy plates.
EGAN: Curtis is going to Hopi land, to Navajo land, to the Zuni country. He's going to New Mexico and Arizona territory. He's riding the undammed Columbia River. And he's doing this while carrying glass plate negatives. When he takes a picture, it's not a photograph. It's a picture imprinted on a glass plate negative. He's then going to take that glass plate negative back to his studio in Seattle and make it glorious. So, that's what he's doing at a time - and this is important to understand: Indians are disappearing. The conventional wisdom is they will be gone in a generation's time.
MARTIN: How did he get into their world? He had to win their trust. He had to win the trust of the tribes before he could photograph them. Why did they let him in?
EGAN: Well, it was very difficult. Initially, they did not let him in. They threw dirt at his camera, they charged him on their horses. They tried to lure him with Native women so they could then get him involved with sexual scandals. And initially, his approach was a very blunt one. He would pay them and they would allow him to take their picture. And this only went so far. But what Curtis developed after a while was quite a trust with most of the tribes because he put Native people on his payroll. Now, by the middle of his epic, they loved him. They wanted him to come aboard. They would request: when are you coming to see us? Because he wasn't an outsider. He became an insider.
MARTIN: I mean, we often think of photographers as being these kind of dispassionate observers. Did he remain that or was there part of him that was delving into the world of activism? Was he trying to save these tribes?
EGAN: That's one of the things that fascinated me about Edward Curtis, was the arch of his life. He started out as a dispassionate sort of celebrity knowing that he had a commodity in these Indians. He said I'm not going to get involved in the old stories of injustices. That's not my business. But slowly, one tribe after the other he changes. Now, he never went full native, or as they called it then, gone to the blanket, but as he became broken and old and had things taken away from him, he truly saw the Native world from their perspective.
MARTIN: The project ultimately comes to fruition. "The North American Indian" is published - his collection of books - to much acclaim. But Curtis never financially benefited from the project. In fact, it ended up kind of breaking him in the end. He loses his marriage, disenfranchised from his family.
EGAN: Isn't that the story of the artist? Also the story of what happens in the pack between artist and benefactor. J.P. Morgan ultimately ended up owning Curtis - owning his copyright, owning all this stuff. When Curtis dies in the 1950s living alone in an apartment in Beverly Hills, he has nothing. He's completed this American epic and he doesn't own any of it. He hadn't made a dime off of it, he's lost his copyright. He's lost everything because of this. Now, to put it in perspective, it's hailed as - the New York Herald called it at one point the most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James Edition of the bible. It's an American masterpiece and it's underappreciated.
MARTIN: Tim Egan, thanks so much. We really appreciate it.
EGAN: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate your interest.
MARTIN: Tim Egan. You may have seen his byline in the New York Times. He's also the winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is called "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis." You can read an excerpt from the book and see Curtis's photographs at npr.org.
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MARTIN: Do you have a favorite Edward Curtis photograph?
EGAN: I guess my favorite of the portraits is Chief Joseph because it's a year before Joseph died. He's called the Indian Napoleon. He's probably the most famous living Indian outside of Geronimo. But he's living essentially as a prisoner of war on this crappy reservation in eastern Washington. And the mournful face, but still with a pride and still with humanity shows so much. That's the picture I stared at constantly in putting this work together.
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MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.