Synopses & Reviews
How a lone mans epic obsession led to one of Americas greatest cultural treasures: Prizewinning writer Timothy Egan tells the riveting, cinematic story behind the most famous photographs in Native American history — and the driven, brilliant man who made them.
Edward Curtis was charismatic, handsome, a passionate mountaineer, and a famous photographer, the Annie Leibovitz of his time. He moved in rarefied circles, a friend to presidents, vaudeville stars, leading thinkers. And he was thirty-two years old in 1900 when he gave it all up to pursue his Great Idea: to capture on film the continents original inhabitants before the old ways disappeared.
An Indiana Jones with a camera, Curtis spent the next three decades traveling from the Havasupai at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the Acoma on a high mesa in New Mexico to the Salish in the rugged Northwest rain forest, documenting the stories and rituals of more than eighty tribes. It took tremendous perseverance — ten years alone to persuade the Hopi to allow him into their Snake Dance ceremony. And the undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate. Eventually Curtis took more than 40,000 photographs, preserved 10,000 audio recordings, and is credited with making the first narrative documentary film. In the process, the charming rogue with the grade school education created the most definitive archive of the American Indian.
His most powerful backer was Theodore Roosevelt, and his patron was J. P. Morgan. Despite the friends in high places, he was always broke and often disparaged as an upstart in pursuit of an impossible dream. He completed his masterwork in 1930, when he published the last of the twenty volumes. A nation in the grips of the Depression ignored it. But today rare Curtis photogravures bring high prices at auction, and he is hailed as a visionary. In the end he fulfilled his promise: He made the Indians live forever.
"Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Egan (The Worst Hard Time) turns his attention to one of Seattle's most remarkable yet all but forgotten residents. In the late 19th century, Edward Curtis was the era's reigning portrait photographer, so well respected that President Theodore Roosevelt chose him to photograph his daughter's wedding. Yet in 1900, at the height of his fame, Curtis gave it up to pursue what would become his life's work 'a plan to photograph all the intact Native American tribes left in North America' before their ways of life disappeared. This idea received the backing of J.P. Morgan and culminated in a critically acclaimed 20-volume set, The North American Indian, which took Curtis 30 years to complete and left him divorced and destitute. Unfailingly sympathetic to his subject, Egan shadows Curtis as he travels from Roosevelt's summer home at Sagamore Hill to the mesas and canyons of the Southwest tribes and to the rain forests of the Coastal Indians and the isolated tundra on Nunivak Island. Egan portrays the dwindling tribes, their sacred rites (such as the Hopi snake dance), customs, and daily lives, and captures a larger-than-life cast. With a reporter's eye for detail, Egan delivers a gracefully written biography and adventure story. Agent: Carol Mann, Carol Mann Agency." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"In this hauntingly beautiful book, Egan brings Curtis to life as vividly and with as much depth, heart and understanding as Curtis himself put into his timeless portraits. This is a story for the ages." Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic
"Short Nights is not only the marvelous and rollicking account of life of one of America's extraordinary photographers. It is also a book about the extreme personal cost of outsized ambition. Edward Curtis undertook one of the most epic cultural projects in American history — photographing and documenting the vanishing ways of life of some eighty American Indian tribes. It cost him almost everything he once was. And still he persisted, turning out some of the greatest photographic and ethnological work ever done. Egan has found yet another great subject, and has crafted yet another great narrative around it." S.C. Gwynne, author of Empire of the Summer Moon
"Edward Curtis's hauntingly beautiful photographs have graced gallery walls and coffee tables for generations
"Ace popular historian Egan makes Curtis' story frequently suspenseful, always gripping, and monumentally heroic." Booklist, starred review
"[Short Nights] mesmerizes — it's instructive, entertaining and a joy to read....When it comes to superlative historical writing, this is as good as it gets....Dazzling." Shelf Awareness
"A vivid exploration of one man's lifelong obsession with an idea....Egan's spirited biography might just bring [Curtis] the recognition that eluded him in life." Washington Post
"A darn good yarn. Egan is a muscular storyteller and his book is a rollicking page-turner with a colorfully drawn hero." San Francisco Chronicle
"An astonishing story, worth knowing and well told." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Egan fills his chronicle with bright turns of phrase and radiant descriptions, making both places and people come alive....A sweeping tale about two vanishing ways of life." Wall Street Journal
"Egan writes this fascinating biography with a compelling and occasionally creative narrative that challenges the age-old ratio of a picture's worth to a thousand words. Egan somehow makes both more valuable." USA Today
"[Egan] artfully frames a stunning portrait of Edward Curtis that captures every patina of his glory, brilliance, and pathos. [Egan] writes with passion and grace." Christian Science Monitor
"The author gracefully transforms the past into vivid scenes that employ all five senses." Star Tribune
"Egan brings liveliness and a wealth of detail to his biography of the legendary American photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis...a riveting biography of an American original." Boston Globe
"Insightful and entertaining...Egan's excellent book stands as a fitting tribute to an American original who fought for a people with his camera and his art." Los Angeles Times
"[A] captivating tribute to a treasured American and the treasures he created." Dallas Morning News
"Lucent prose illuminates a man obscured for years in history's shadows." Kirkus, starred review
The story of Edward Curtis, a charming rogue with a grade school education who became the Annie Leibovitz of his time, and the creation of his masterwork, a photographic record of the entire North American Indian nation — a project that cost him his celebrity, his prosperity, and ultimately his life, but transformed Native history for the modern era when it was rediscovered in a Boston basement in the 1970s.
Edward Curtis was dashing, charismatic, a passionate mountaineer, a famous photographer — the Annie Leibovitz of his time. And he was thirty-two years old in 1900 when he gave it all up to pursue his great idea: He would try to capture on film the Native American nation before it disappeared. At once an incredible adventure narrative and a penetrating biographical portrait, Egans book tells the remarkable untold story behind Curtis's iconic photographs, following him throughout Indian country from desert to rainforest as he struggled to document the stories and rituals of more than eighty tribes. Even with the backing of Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan, it took tremendous perseverance — six years alone to convince the Hopi to allow him into their Snake Dance ceremony. The undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate. He would die penniless and unknown in Hollywood just a few years after publishing the last of his twenty volumes. But the charming rogue with the grade-school education had fulfilled his promise — his great adventure succeeded in creating one of America's most stunning cultural achievements.
How a lone mans epic obsession led to one of Americas greatest cultural treasures: Prize-winning writer Timothy Egan tells the riveting, cinematic story behind the most famous photographs in Native American history -- and the driven, brilliant man who made them.
About the Author
Timothy Egan is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and the author of six books, most recently The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and the Washington State Book Award. His previous books include The Worst Hard Time, which won a National Book Award and was named a New York Times Editors Choice. He is an online op-ed columnist for the New York Times, writing his "Opinionator" feature once a week. He is a third-generation Westerner and lives in Seattle.
Table of Contents
First Picture 1
Encounter on a Volcano 23
The Big Idea 41
Indian Napoleon 61
With the President 81
In the Den of the Titan 105
Anglos in Indian Country 121
The Artist and His Audience 137
The Custer Conundrum 159
The Most Remarkable Man 179
On the River of the West 193
New Art Forms 207
Moving Pictures 229
Lost Days 245
Second Wind 259
The Longest Days 279
Fight to the Finish 291
Epilogue: Revival 317
Photo Credits 351