If you are looking for a good book to read, I suggest this one as a possibility: Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher (2012) by Timothy Egan. The book, winner of the National Book Award, tells the amazing story of Edward Curtis, a renowned American portrait photographer who lived from 1868 to 1952.
Curtis’ story is nothing short of incredible. He was friends with several U.S. presidents (like Theodore Roosevelt) and
with some of the most powerful men of his age (like J.P. Morgan). In 1900, however, when he was 32, he made a bold decision to pursue what he called his “Great Idea”: to photograph the country’s Native Americans before they and their traditional ways of life disappeared.
For the next 30 years he traveled the country, lugging his heavy photography and recording equipment, while documenting the history, stories, and rituals of more than eighty North American tribes. This massive undertaking changed him from being a mere observer of Native Americans to an untiring advocate for them. Before he was finished, Curtis had produced over 40,000 photographs and 10,000 wax cylinder audio recordings. In addition, he is credited with making the first documentary film, one that focuses on the Kwakiuti tribe in British Columbia.
Curtis sacrificed just about everything for his project. His marriage to Clara Phillips ended in divorce. For many years he had very little contact with his four children, Harold, Elizabeth, Florence, and Katherine. He also sacrificed his health and his finances to pursue his dream. One of the criticisms leveled at him is that he staged or edited some of his photographs. For example, he removed an alarm clock from a photo of the inside of a tepee. Yet many of his photographs and recordings are the only ones we have of tribes and a way of life that no longer exist.
Personally, I found the book breathtaking. I agree with the words in the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “The author gracefully transforms the past into vivid scenes that employ all five senses.” And I agree with the words from Shelf Awareness: “When it comes to superlative historical writing, this is as good as it gets.” The many photographs and the stories behind the photographs also enrich the book.
Here’s one story.
In 1896, the last Indian living in Seattle was an elderly woman. Rumor said she was over 100, but she was probably in her 80s. At that time it was illegal for Indians to live in Seattle, so this particular Indian lived in a shack mostly hidden from view. Her father had been the great Chief See-ahlsh. Her name was Kick-is-om-lo. Because the white residents of the city could not pronounce either name, her father was known as Seattle and she became Princess Angeline. The young boys near where she lived tormented her, calling her names and chasing her. She retaliated by throwing stones at them—stones she hid under her skirts.
Edward Curtis found Princess Angeline when he was twenty-eight years old. He showed her some photographs he
had already taken of people in Seattle, and then he offered her money if she would allow him to take her picture. She eventually agreed. When she entered his studio, she was about to remove her headscarf, but Curtis told her he wanted her just as she was. He took her picture and paid her a dollar, a large amount of money in those days. Angeline died shortly after and was buried from Our Lady of Good Help Catholic Church and laid to rest in Lake View Cemetery under a stone that says, “Angeline, Daughter of Sealth, May 31, 1986.” So much irony! During her life, she was legally barred from living in the city named after her father. And in her death, she was treated almost like royalty!
Did anything catch your attention in this reflection?
Study the photograph of Edward Curtis… What does this self-portrait say about the man?
Study the photograph of Angeline… What do you see? What does this photo say about her? How does this photo make you feel?
PS: I have an upcoming presentation at St. John of the Cross Parish (formerly St. Felicitas) in Euclid, Ohio on Saturday October 5 from 10:00 am to noon. I will speak on “Hanging onto Hope in Today’s World.” I will explore the virtue of hope and its relation to faith, love, courage, and humor. I will also suggest practical ways to nourish our hope in everyday life. Everyone is welcome! St. Felicitas is my home parish.
This is a song by Carrie Newcomer entitled “Every Little Bit of It.” To me the song is about God’s grace that is continuously moving in the world–often just beneath the surface of things…
I invite you to respond below to anything in today’s reflection!