“Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher” by Timothy Egan

shortnights2Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is a riveting biography of the epic life of Edward Curtis and his audacious project: running against the clock to capture the life of American Indians in photographs and recordings before it all would be lost to history.

When Seattle was a fledgling town and they were giving away land for free, Edward Curtis and his father made a reconnaissance journey from the Midwest to stake out a new homestead for the family.  Just as Seattle was a voucher to a new future, Curtis vowed to make his new-found love – the camera – his path to supporting himself financially.  Success came quickly.  His studio thrived and a portrait by celebrity photographer Edward Curtis was to become the status symbol of the upper crust of the Pacific Northwest.

America’s development, growth, and harvesting of riches in the West, displaced the natives who originally inhabited the area and depended on the natural resources for their existence.  Curtis was struck by Princes Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, holed up in a shack down by the shore, still living off the land.  It was illegal for Indians to live in the city, but she refused to leave.  He paid her one dollar to photograph her in his studio.  She died shortly after.

Another bit of synchronicity occurred when Curtis, on one of his many excursions in the mountains, rescued a couple of men from a glacier on Mount Rainier.  Namely, George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society and friend of Theodore Roosevelt; and C. Hart Merriam, cofounder of the National Geographic Society.  The following spring, Grinnell invited him to tag along with his camera on the largest scientific exploration of Alaska.  Grinnell again invited him that summer to join him to capture the ceremonies of the Blackfeet Indians in Montana.  It was the seed that blossomed into the project that would consume the next 30 years of his life.  Encouraged by Teddy Roosevelt, who thought it was a “bully idea,” with  financing from J.P. Morgan, Curtis captured more than 40,000 photographs and 10,000 audio recordings of the American Indian.  He is credited with making the first documentary film with narration.

West Michigan will be hearing and seeing a lot about Edward Curtis in the coming months.  This book was selected in conjunction with the Community Read led by The Muskegon Museum of Art in preparation for their upcoming exhibit: Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian which will open on May 11 and run through September 10.  The exhibit, sure to garner national interest, will feature 723 photogravures and the complete 20  bound volumes which were sold as a subscription from 1908-1930 (the museum owns subscription #70 out of 222). The exhibit will also include original field recordings of Native music, historic objects related to Curtis’s work, and examples of cultural artifacts represented in the photogravures. There will be many opportunities for book discussions, film screenings, lectures, and an evening with author Timothy Egan at the Frauenthal Theater on May 17.  All of the events surrounding the exhibit can be found on the museum’s website www.muskegonartmuseum.org.

The Book Nook will also be hosting events this summer in conjunction with the exhibit, including a screening of a documentary about Edward Curtis “Coming to Light;” the documentary by Edward Curtis “In the Land of the Head Hunters;” and “The Indian Picture Opera,” a recreation of the traveling Magic Lantern slide show Curtis created In 1911 in an effort to promote his book sales.  Stereo-Opticon projectors put Curtis’s stunning images on screens in America’s largest cities…. one scene dissolving into another. A small orchestra played music derived from Indian chants and rhythms, and Edward Curtis lectured on the intimate stories of tribal life.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, April 3.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, April 5 for a discussion of Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.