Photographer Edward Curtis' 20-volume chronicle of a vanishing people titled "The North American Indian" has been called the "largest anthropological enterprise ever undertaken." Underappreciated at the time, collectors now pay six figures for a single print from the collection, and one set sold at a private sale in 2009 for $1.8 million. Yet when Curtis died in 1952, he lived in a tiny California apartment and could barely make ends meet.
Curtis' work that led to this great achievement of iconic American Indian photographs is at the core of New York Times columnist Timothy Egan's "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher." As with Egan's last two narrative works of history, "The Big Burn" and the National Book Award-winning "The Worst Hard Time," the author gracefully transforms the past into vivid scenes that employ all five senses. The result is an honest portrayal of a man obsessed with capturing the final days of this nation's first people. Curtis let both his marriage and his health unravel as he relentlessly pursued his subjects to all corners of the continent, while trying, at the same time, to twist the arms of reluctant benefactors for his ambitious project.
Support and encouragement would come from such heavyweights as President Theodore Roosevelt, who became a close friend. Financial backing for "The North American Indian" came from the richest man in the world, J.P. Morgan, who, in 1906, gave Curtis $75,000 for field work over five years. When the two men shook hands on the deal Morgan said, "I like a man who attempts the impossible."
Impossible was the correct word, because Curtis drastically underestimated the money he would need for printing and overestimated the number of sets he would sell. A settlement after a nasty and very public divorce with his wife, Clara, ensured that he would never make a dime for his life's work.
Whether climbing mountains, leaping icebergs or participating in sacred ceremonies such as the Hopi Snake Dance, Curtis' technique "was simple: get as close as he could." The one-of-a-kind photographs -- some posed in Curtis' studio, others staged in the field and many captured during everyday activities -- that accompany "Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher" are poignant and breathtaking. Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday was brought to tears the first time he saw a Curtis photograph of Plains Indians. He said, "Never before have we seen the Indians of North America so close to the origins of their humanity, their sense of themselves in the world, their innate dignity and self-possession."
Stephen J. Lyons' latest book is "The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River." He is currently at work on a book about the Driftless Area of the Upper Midwest.