SHADOW CATCHER: THE LIFE AND WORK OF EDWARD S. CURTIS, Laurie Lawlor, Walker and Company, New York, 1994. 132 pages, index, bibliography for young people, listing of the 20 vols. of Curtis's work. Hardcover, $20.85. 0-8027-8289-2R
This is the lifestory of an artist, a man obsessed. When photography was still pretty new in the 19th century, Curtis, an uneducated Minnesota farmer's son, became enthralled with it. Later, he moved to Seattle and became a successful society photographer -- occasionally taking studio and field photos of local Indian people. In 1899, he was engaged as a (mostly) scenery photographer on on a poshy scientific expedition up the coast of Alaska. This sparked the idea for a momumentasl documentation of -- 20 illustrated volumes, with a portfolio of Indians of the U.S. -- while some remnents of their original cultures yet survived. He approached the grasping railroad millionaire J.P. Morgan, who provided some minimal financing for travel, research staff, and printing Interpreters and writers recorded lifeways, history, and hundreds of native stories.. Much of this book chronicles various song-and-dance routines Curtis had to undertake to try to fill out the financing so he could complete his project. In the end, only 300 copies of the entire set were printed, and the negatives were thrown out as junk from the Morgan Library. No one wanted them in the post-World-War I period, no one was interested any more in Indians. Well, the "science of anthropology" was growing as big academic biz, and certainly none of the anthros were interested in the unprofessional Curtis, whose project recorded, orally and visually, the Indians themselves, rather than academic thories. At the time of his death, in 1952, the monumental work was forgotten. With the rise of Natrive activism of the 70's, reprints of the fine images began to be used in various books (as they are in this one, high-quality rephotographed sepiatones). I would like to see a library reissue of the encyclopediac set, which, from this book's description, wsounds fascionating in its written, as well as irreplaceable photographic, content. Ultimately, Curtis himself is a mystery. Nothing really explains his obsession, which destroyed his marriage, wrecked his health, and consumed his young life, leaving him to survive 20 years of old age, after completing the huge, unwanted project, living in poverty and obscurity. It appears still unwanted now; the photo collection is frequently mined for striking images, but the text, thee histories, the stories, in short the documentation of the images, the chronicles of Native cultures as they existed in the early 1900's, continues to be ignored. A videotape on Curtis's life and work is available. Reviewed by Paula Giese
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Last Updated: Monday, October 28, 1996 - 4:07:17 AM