“In his pictures, ordinary people look extraordinary.”
- Timothy Egan
Longtime reporter and writer Timothy Egan dusted off the images made by photographer Edward Curtis made through is lens as he examines the volumes of photos Curtis took of Native American tribes across reservations in the late 1800s. Egan has written a book, “Short Nights of the Shadow Caster” about Curtis and his work, some of which as lost in the decades since he made the fantastic images.
Egan previews the book for the New York Times’ Lens blog.
Curtis was a celebrity, the Annie Leibovitz of his day. He gave up a life as a prominent portrait photographer to start his Indian epic, and spent more than 30 years producing the 20 volumes of “The North American Indian.” It was called “the most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible” by The New York Herald.
You can read excerpts of Egan’s book on Curtis at Lens, and of course, see many of the photographers photos. Curtis spent decades making the images.
But it was also one of the largest anthropological enterprises ever undertaken by a single man. When he started in 1896, Indians were at their low ebb, with a total population that had dwindled to less than 250,000. Many scholars thought they would disappear within a generation’s time. Curtis set out to document lifestyle, creation myths and language. He recorded more than 10,000 songs on a primitive wax cylinder, and wrote down vocabularies and pronunciation guides for 75 languages.
Along the way, he never denied asking people to pose. He paid them for it. He asked his subjects to dress in the clothes of their fathers and mothers. To me, this is no different than, say, going to Scotland to photograph different family clans, and then asking someone if they would pose in the kilts of their grandparents.
Egan calls the images “immortal.”