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Stories in Sepia Tones

Ten years of research powers a compelling biography of a Western pioneer

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In late spring 1906, Edward S. Curtis traveled to the White Mountains of Arizona.

The photographer was buoyant. He had at long last gotten funding for his long-dreamed-of project to document the Indian tribes of North America in photographs, in sound recordings and in texts that would memorialize all of their cultural practices, their languages and their religions. Now underwritten by tycoon J.P. Morgan, Curtis traveled into the Apaches' forested mountains.

There was just one problem: The Apaches didn't want to be photographed by this Shadow Catcher. Nor did they care to share the tenets of their religion, their songs or their founding myths, all the things that Curtis wanted for his projected 20-volume North American Indian.

For weeks, as Timothy Egan recounts in his sprawling biography, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, Curtis' team idled in camp. But Curtis connected with a medicine man, Goshonné, listening empathetically to his troubles, particularly his outrage that the U.S. had outlawed Native American religious practices.

Eventually, with the added inducement of some of Morgan's cash, Goshonné began talking to Curtis, describing the Apache way of life. Most important, he deconstructed a sacred deerskin scroll, a kind of Apache Rosetta stone whose drawings were "symbols of the Apache creation myth," Egan relates. And once Goshonné allowed Curtis to fill his notebooks and his wax recording devices with long-held Apache secrets, other tribal members agreed to be photographed.

But Curtis' Apache triumph was tempered by disaster. An anguished Goshonné quickly regretted betraying his people's sacred beliefs. His life would be short, he told Curtis. And a few months later, after Curtis was back home in Seattle, Goshonné died suddenly, of causes unknown.

This Apache tragedy could stand as a metaphor for Curtis' entire project. A driven, gifted photographer of "bulldog tenacity," the entrepreneurial Curtis was a successful society portraitist in late 19th-century Seattle. Early encounters with Indians, including Seattle's Princess Angeline, drove him from this profitable path.

The prevailing view was that Indians were a vanishing race, an archaic people who would soon disappear, displaced by—among other things—the Morgan railroads that crisscrossed the West by the 1880s, and by the millions of white Americans who turned up to take their lands. Curtis, galvanized by a trip to Montana to photograph the isolated Piegan tribe, was seized by what Egan calls his Big Idea: He would document the Indians and their way of life before it was too late.

This massive undertaking, which he promised Morgan would take five years, instead took nearly 30. It cost him his marriage and his livelihood. Acclaimed in the early stages—"marvelous ... remarkable ... important" gushed The New York Times—the expensive volumes sold poorly and were finally forgotten. In 1952, Curtis died penniless and alone at age 84 in a small rental in Los Angeles.

Seattle native Egan, a New York Times columnist and winner of the National Book Award, spent 10 years off and on retracing Curtis' travels, from Arizona to Alaska. Egan tells Curtis' tale as a cinematic adventure, and his prose is occasionally marred by an irritating gee-whiz machismo. Even so, his research is formidable and his life of the Shadow Catcher is engrossing.

Curtis' work was rediscovered in a Boston basement in the 1970s and is now highly prized; in 2009, a 20-volume set of The North American Indian sold for $1.8 million. With its new success, the work inevitably drew new criticism. Some scholars fault Curtis' practice of posing his Indian subjects in their ancestors' clothing, and picturing them in a kind of timeless antiquity. And, of course, American Indians haven't vanished at all.

But seen in the context of his time, Curtis was a progressive, a man who valued the distinctiveness of Native American culture and through his art quietly condemned the imperialism that sought to obliterate it.

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